Image: Alvaro Barrington on hip-hop, carnival and his Tate show
Alvaro Barrington, Tupac Bather, Oct 2023 , 2023. Photo: Charles Duprat.
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Alvaro Barrington on hip-hop, carnival and his Tate show ‘Biggie, Tupac, Ghostface – those guys saved my life’

26 May 2024

By Sean O'Hagan

Ahead of his major Tate commission, one of the stars of modern art discusses his diverse cultural influences and why his new work will explore his Caribbean and American roots

Before we sit down to talk, Alvaro Barrington gives me a guided tour of his expansive studio in Whitechapel, east London. It stands on the site of one of the country’s first free schools for the poor, which was founded in 1860. As we climb the steps to the upper floor of an ornate two-storey neo-Jacobean building that was once an assembly hall and gymnasium, he talks animatedly about the waves of immigrant workers who settled and transformed the area, from French Huguenots in the 17th century to the Jewish, Irish and Bengali communities that followed in their wake.

“I think of myself essentially as a working-class immigrant and Whitechapel chimes with that,” he says. “The long history of this planet is one of migration and exchange. That is what has given me the most freedom in terms of conceptualising myself and my journey, so I kind of feel at home here.”

Aged 41, Barrington’s own experience of migration and exchange is embedded in his vividly expressive paintings, which have made him one of the stars of the modern art scene. In a few weeks, having first grabbed the attention of the London art cognoscenti with his MFA graduate show at the Slade school of art in 2017, he will present what may well be his most important exhibition to date. Having been awarded the Tate Britain Commission, he follows in the footsteps of established artists such as Mike Nelson (2019) and Hew Locke (2022).


A Tate Britain press release tantalisingly trails the forthcoming Duveen installation as “a major new work addressing themes of place and belonging”. It is taking shape in the school’s former gymnasium, but Barrington is unable to discuss details before the official opening. Instead, we repair to a quiet attic room and talk about everything else under the sun, from the importance of community to the lineage of New York hip-hop.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a Grenadian mother and Haitian father, Barrington was raised in Grenada by his grandmother, before moving to Brooklyn when he was eight years old. His work is loaded with memories of his Caribbean childhood landscape – blood-red hibiscus flowers are a recurring motif – as well as references to pop culture and art history. His conversation, too, is free-ranging and peppered with names that don’t often appear in the same sentence – Willem de Kooning and Tupac Shakur, Joseph Beuys and Marcus Garvey, Claude Monet and Miles Davis – but add up to a kind of cultural map of his myriad influences.


His iconoclastic approach to exhibiting continued with a 2019 show at Thaddaeus Ropac in London. Provocatively titled Artists I Steal From, it featured a single painting by him nestling among a constellation of his influences, including work by Philip Guston, Agnes Martin and Robert Rauschenberg.

“That was probably the most important show of my life,” he says. “It was really about contextualising me in terms of all these other artists. One of the things I’m interested in is how, in the long history of painting, artists struggle to make painting make sense. By studying their work, maybe I can borrow some of their solutions and transform them.”

Since graduating, Barrington has walked to his own rhythm, creating elaborate floats and stages for the Notting Hill carnival, as well as funding community projects connected to it. “Carnival is inclusive,” he says. “It’s a celebration of community. I put my paintings on a float and a million people get to see them.” He has plans to turn the old school house into a hub for emerging artists as well as a place where the local community can feel welcome and included.


“Growing up in Brooklyn, hip-hop let me know that what I was experiencing, others were also experiencing,” Barrington says, growing visibly animated. “Biggie, Tupac, Ghostface – those guys saved my life. They are my north stars and there is a part of the Tate Britain show where I acknowledge that. That’s all I can say about it.” He pauses for a moment, as if lost in recollection. “I remember when I was a kid hearing Children’s Story by Slick Rick and I can truthfully say there would be no Tate Britain show if he hadn’t made that record.”

When I ask Barrington how he felt when he landed the Tate commission, his answer is characteristically thoughtful. “I felt honoured, but I saw it more as an opportunity than an accolade. And with every opportunity, there is also the bigger question, what does this mean?”

So what does it mean to him? He pauses for a long moment. “Well, I’ve lived in London for nearly a decade, but I think of myself as an American. Then there’s the fact that I grew up in Grenada, which is a part of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom. I can remember seeing the Queen’s face on a bill for the first time when I was five years old. So, the first question is, what is my relationship to all of this and how do I explore it? The Tate show is a great opportunity to think through all of that. That’s the exciting part.”

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