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On the record

PETER MASON recommends an exhibition of album covers by the legendary Mighty Sparrow which catalogues turbulent times

Sparrow Come Back at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1

4/5

THE ICA’S new Sparrow Come Back exhibition works around a novel idea, that of transforming dozens of album covers by the great calypsonian Mighty Sparrow into LP-sized ceramic tiles, arranged around two walls as if in an old-fashioned record shop.

The dozens of albums — displayed front and back — provide a fascinating insight into the breadth and depth of the 81-year-old Trinidadian’s work, which has proudly upheld his long-established duty of commenting on social and political issues of the day.

Set out chronologically from left to right, the song titles on the covers neatly chronicle the preoccupations of various eras, showing how Sparrow’s focus has extended from inward-looking concerns about colonial-era iniquities in mid-1950s Trinidad through to thoughts on the wider post-independence challenges of the Caribbean in the ’60s, along with broader global consideration of racial issues in the wake of the civil rights and black power movements and the era of unfulfilled expectations that followed.

The tiles show how he also turned his attention to any number of topical events in world affairs, from the fall of the Shah of Iran to Idi Amin’s brutal rule in Uganda.

Given that the album artwork is the exhibition’s main focus, Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris —the two artists responsible for the concept — appear to have deliberately kept the commentary to a minimum. Although there’s also a glass cabinet of memorabilia, including concert posters and newspaper cuttings, this too is left to speak for itself. Refreshing for the established Sparrow enthusiast, though perhaps not quite so useful for those who know less about the man and his brilliant music.

The accompanying catalogue delivers a touch of rather jaundiced political and social perspective but what it doesn’t provide is any detail about the process by which Sparrow’s album covers have been so beautifully vitrified.

Such information, as much as any general context, would have been welcome.

Nevertheless, having been launched in a week when sales of vinyl records for the first time outranked digital downloads, there could be no better time for this unusual and stylish retrospective of a superb musician and political commentator.

For an entrance fee of £1, one can hardly go wrong.

Runs until January 22, opening times: ica.org.uk

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