McMillan at the British Library, February 2016
|The West Indian Front Room|
Michael McMillan (born 1962) is a British playwright, artist/curator and educator, born in England to parents who were migrants from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). As an academic, he focuses his research on "the creative process, ethnography, oral histories, material culture and performativity". He is the author of several plays, and as an artist is best known for his first installation, The West Indian Front Room, which was exhibited with great success in 2005, attracting more than 35,000 visitors in its initial outing at the Geffrye Museum, and going on to inspire a BBC Four documentary called Tales from the Front Room (2007), a website a 2009 book, The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home, and various international commissions, such as Van Huis Uit: The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (Imagine IC, Amsterdam, and Netherlands Tour, 2007–08) and A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (IBB, Curaçao, 2008). A more recent installation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop featured as part of the 2015 exhibition No Colour Bar at the Guildhall Art Gallery.
McMillan has said of the range of his work: "I was a painter before I was a playwright/dramatist and through making live art pieces and writing critically about performance, photography, visual arts culture, I have come home in a sense to fine arts, through making mixed-media installations, which given my interest in performativity background can be seen also as theatre sets. My work and practice is often interdisciplinary using mixed media, installations and performance."
Life and career
Michael McMillan was born in 1962 in High Wycombe, UK, of Caribbean migrant heritage; as he has said, "Both my parents came from St Vincent & the Grenadines and ... were 'arrivants', to use Edward Kamau Brathwaite's term, from colonies where they were imbued with English culture." Given this background, he has said, "I grew up with learning three languages: the creole spoken by my parents as a fusion of an English lexicon and an African grammar; the Jamaican English spoken on the streets of Hackney and around London and the London English spoken at school." He won an essay competition, run by Len Garrison's ACER (Afro-Caribbean Education Resource), and after going to FESTAC 77 (the Second World Festival of African Arts and Culture), he wrote his play The School Leaver (1978), which was produced at the Royal Court Theatre's Young Writers' Festival.
McMillan read sociology and African and Asian studies at Sussex University, graduating in 1984, and then earned an MA degree in Independent Film & Video from Central Saint Martins, London, in 1991. From 2000, he was a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the London College of Communication and went on to become, since 2003, a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of the Arts London (UAL), and a researcher and Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion (LCF), teaching predominantly Cultural & Historical Studies. He was awarded a practice-based Arts Doctorate from Middlesex University in 2010. In 2010–11, he was Arts in Health & Well Being artist-in-residence in North Wales.
McMillan's interest in oral history and the stories of first-generation Caribbean migrants is reflected in early writings such as Brother to Brother (1996) and The Black Boy Pub & Other Stories (1997), which used recordings of interviews done during a year's residence in High Wycombe, where many of those arriving in particular from SVG had settled. As a dramatist, he has had work performed and produced by the Royal Court Theatre, Channel 4, BBC Radio 4, and in venues across the UK. His play The School Leaver was published by the Black Ink Collective in 1978, when McMillan was 16 years old, and was reprinted several times. His other plays include Master Juba (2006), Babel Junction (2006), and a new translation of Bertholt Brecht's The Good Person of Sezuan, set in Jamaica in the 1980s.
McMillan has written a number of essays and articles in national and international publications, and has presented papers at conferences and symposiums in the UK, Europe, Canada, USA, Caribbean and Brazil, including as keynote speaker at the 2006 "Islands in Between" Conference on Language, Literature & History of the Eastern Caribbean (University of the West Indies, School of Continuing Studies, St. Vincent & the Grenadines).
Alongside teaching, McMillan has also worked on mixed-media exhibitions and publications. His first installation, The West Indian Front Room (he uses "the term 'West Indian' as it refers to a particular moment of post-World War II Caribbean migration to England and the wider Diaspora"), drew on memories of the domestic setting created by his parents and their like after they migrated to Britain, featuring a recreation of a typical front room of the 1970s to raise "questions about the constructions of diaspora, identity, race, class and gender in the domestic interior". According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall, "The front room is a conservative element of black domestic life, which is more complex and rich than the generality of the society ever realises"; nevertheless, McMillan recalled in an article in The Guardian:
"Growing up in our front room caused me much aesthetic distress. The wallpaper and carpet never seemed to match, and Jim Reeves would be crooning from the Blue Spot radiogram on a Sunday. This room was based on the Victorian parlour and was inscribed with a formal code of behaviour because it was reserved for receiving guests. It was packed with furniture, ornaments and soft furnishings surrounded by a gallery of pictures and photographs."
Mounted at London's Geffrye Museum in October 2005, the critically acclaimed exhibition resonated with more than 35,000 visitors who represented a variety of ages, genders and social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Different versions have since been remade in other countries and cultural settings, including in the Netherlands and in Curaçao, and the associated BBC4 television documentary Tales from the Front Room was broadcast in 2007. He has also made presentations on The Front Room at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2009), Clark University, Worcester (2009) and Northwestern University, Chicago, (2008). A book entitled The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home followed in 2009.
Another installation-based exhibition was The Beauty Shop (2008) at the 198 Gallery in south London, where, as with The Front Room, McMillan "tried to create a tangible sense of performance. Visitors were encouraged to respond to them as theatre as much as art."
In 2015, he recreated the Walter Rodney Bookshop as an installation within the exhibition No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960–1990 at the Guildhall Art Gallery (July 2015–January 2016), and participated in related events.
Another recent work is Doing Nothing Is Not An Option, a site-responsive mixed-media installation to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa by exploring the relationship between local people in Peckham and the memory of the Nigerian writer and activist.
Selected curatorial work
- "My Hair: Black Hair Culture, Style and Politics" (in Origins of the Afro Comb, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2013)
- "I Miss My Mum’s Cooking" (in Who More Sci-Fi Than Us, KAdE Kunsthal, Amersfoort, Netherlands, 2012)
- "The Waiting Room" (in Stories and Journeys, Gwynedd Museum & Art Gallery, Bangor, North Wales, 2012)
- The Southall Story (South Bank Centre, 2010)
- A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (Instituto Buena Bista, Curaçao, 2008)
- The Beauty Shop (198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Brixton, 25 January 2008 – 28 March 2013)
- Van Huis Uit: The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (Imagine IC, Amsterdam, and Netherlands Tour, 2007–08)
- The West Indian Front Room (Geffrye Museum, 2005–06)
- "The Walter Rodney Bookshop" (in No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960–1990, Guildhall Art Gallery, 10 July 2015 – 24 January 2016)
- The Waiting Room: An audio-visual tale of an artist in residence at the Alaw Ward (Cancer & Palliative Care Unit) in Ysbyty Gwynedd & Rheumatology Clinics in Ysbyty Gwynedd and Ysbyty Llandudno (2006)
- Same Difference: 25 Years of International Youth Volunteering with the Daneford Trust (2006).
- Living Proof: Views of a World Living with HIV/AIDS (Artist Agency, 1992).
- The Black Boy Pub & Other Stories: The black experience in High Wycombe (Wycombe District Council, 1997).
- Growing Up Is Hard To Do: A Book For Young People & Adults About Sexual Health (Young People's Health Project, 2000).
- The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home (Black Dog Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1906155858)
- If I Could Fly: An anthology of writings from young men at Orchard Lodge Resource Centre (Southwark Social Services, 1998).
- Editor, Words, Sounds & Power Anthology (Centerprise Publishing Project, 1988)
- On Duty (Akira Press, 1984)
- The School Leaver (Black Ink Collective, 1978)
Plays and performance pieces
- New translation of The Good Person of Sezuan by Bertolt Brecht (2010 & 2012)
- Babel Junction (Empire Theatre, 2006)
- Master Juba (Luton Library Theatre, Albany Theatre, 2006)
- Can you Play Football? (2004)
- Blood for Britain (BBC Radio 4 Drama, 2001)
- After Windrush (Oval House Theatre, 1998)
- Brother to Brother (Lyric Hammersmith and tour, 1996 & 1998); in Cheryl Robson (ed.), Black and Asian Plays Anthology, Aurora Metro, 2000
- I Hope It's Not a Black Man (1996)
- Invisible (Double Edge Theatre Company; 1993 & 1998)
- The Last Blind Date (Artists Alliance/Live Theatre, 1992)
- Portrait of a Shopping Centre as a Cathedral (1990)
- First Impressions (Perspective Theatre Company, 1988)
- On Duty (Carlton Centre, Kilburn, 1983)
- Carve Your Name (The Old Vic Theatre, 1981)
- Day of Action (Brent Black People's Theatre, 1981)
- Hard Time Pressure (Royal Court Theatre, 1980)
- The School Leaver (Royal Court Theatre, 1978)
- "Michael McMillan | St. Vincent – UK, Uprising Art.
- "Artists: Michael McMillan", Peckham Platform.
- "Michael McMillan | St. Vincent – UK", Uprising Art, 12 April 2012.
- "Iniva launches the The Front Room website", InIVA press release, 15 October 2007.
- The Front Room interactive website.
- Michael McMillan, "Van Huis Uit/That’s the way we do it…!: The Living Room of Migrants in The Netherlands." Guided Talk, April 2007.
- Clelia Coussonnet, "Exclusive Interview: Michael McMillan – in the framework of the exhibition Who More Sci-Fi than Us" (May 2012), Uprising Art, 2 July 2012.
- "Michael McMillan reviews - Migrations: Journeys into British Art - Tate Britain 31 Jan - 12 Aug 2012" (biographical note), Wasafiri, 7 March 2012.
- Michael McMillan, "Oral Histories in an Ethnographic Context", Sounding Performance, November 2007.
- Mike Phillips, "Obituary: Len Garrison - Recording the history of black Britons for future generations", The Guardian, 28 February 2003.
- "Michael McMillan", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "CSM Alumnus Michael McMillan", en>route, UAL.
- Fellows: "Michael McMillan, Non-fiction writer, Playwright", Royal Literary Fund.
- "Clothes, Cloth and Culture Group: 'Saga Bwoys' and Bedouin Women", InIVA, 25 September 2014.
- "Associate Member, Dr Michael McMillan", PLaCE (UK).
- Reva Klein, "No place like home", TES, 11 May 2008.
- Michael McMillan, "De Mudder Tongue: Oral History Work as an Arts Practice", in Matthew Partington and Linda Sandino (eds), Oral History in the Visual Arts, A & C Black, 2013 (pp. 25–33), p. 26.
- Natricia Duncan, "The Caribbean Island That Changed A UK Town — How people from St Vincent and the Grenadines transformed life in High Wycombe", The Voice, 28 July 2013.
- Michael McMillan at Doollee.com.
- Desrie Thomson-George, "The legacy of Black Ink", The Bookseller, 7 November 2016.
- "Speaker profiles: Dr Michael McMillan", UAL.
- "The committee", Origins of the Afro Comb.
- Michael McMillan, "The ‘West Indian’ Front Room: migrant aesthetics in the home", University of the West Indies, Mona.
- Michael McMillan, "Home is where the art is — The front rooms of African-Caribbean immigrants to the UK are centre stage in a new book", The Guardian, 16 September 2009.
- Michael McMillan, "Life before IKEA"; via Karl Eklund, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines blog, 7 September 2009.
- "The Beauty Shop", Archives, 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning.
- Michael McMillan, "There's more to black theatre than plays", The Guardian, 30 September 2009.
- William Axtell, "Guildhall celebrates black British artists with No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action", Culture24, 9 July 2015.
- "Radical Readings from the Walter Rodney Bookshop at the Guildhall Art Gallery", Art Map London, September 2015.
- FHALMA — Events: "No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990", Huntleys Online.
- "Personal Insight from Curator Michael McMillan", No Colour Bar Blogspot, 24 August 2015.
- "Doing Nothing Is Not An Option", Michael McMillan | Peckham Platform | 17 September – 22 November 2015.
- "Doing Nothing Is Not An Option", video from Peckham Platform.
- Michael McMillan, "The 'West Indian' Front Room: Reflections on a Diasporic Phenomenon", Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism (SX 28, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 2009) ISSN 0799-0537. Abstract, Academia/
- Michael McMillan, The Front Room (2009) at Amazon.
- "Babel Junctions", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "Master Juba", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "After Windrush", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- Susan Croft, "Black Playwrights in Britain in Print" (bibliography), VAM.
- "Brother To Brother", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "Invisible", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "Last Blind Date, The", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "First Impressions", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "On Duty", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "The School Leaver", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- "Michael McMillan | St. Vincent – UK", Uprising Art.
- "Exclusive Interview: Michael McMillan – in the framework of the exhibition Who More Sci-Fi than Us", Uprising Art, 2 July 2012.
- "Michael McMillan", Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- Michael McMillan at Doollee.com.
- "Artist Shiraz Bayjoo In Conversation with Michael McMillan, 5 Feb 2015", InivaArts. YouTube.