Come with me on a whistle-stop tour of the life that was Pearl Alcock nee Smith. A life that began in Jamaica and ended in England. A life that experienced abuse, a loveless marriage and the loss of a child before it flowered again and lit up the lives of so many others.
The escape from those traumatic early years brought Pearl to the UK in 1958, aged 25 with little more than a determination to change her life, be in control of her destiny, and make it big. Such ambition would seem impossible to many, especially if you arrived in a brand new country with just £5 in your pocket. But that £5 has come to symbolise 5 amazing things about Pearlina, the incredible woman we have all come to know as simply Pearl…
She was fearless
Pearl came to a new country on her own and became a serial entrepreneur – with her 1970s Brixton shebeen the most well-known and talked about of her businesses. Not only because it was unusual for shebeens to be run solely by a woman, but because Pearl’s shebeen soon became a much-loved favourite haunt of the black gay community in London – at a time when the community still faced a great deal of prejudice. In fact, back then, it was the only gay bar in Brixton, and one of the few places black gay men could truly be themselves.
She was determined
Pearl needed to turn that £5 into £1,000 if she was going to realise her ambition of owning a boutique clothes shop. Before moving to London around 1970, Pearl’s first home in the UK was Leeds, and by working as a maid, and in the city’s factories, Pearl saved and saved towards her dream. Always goal-focused, always single-minded.
She was a grafter
Pearl never stopped working hard and putting the hours in – as she ran her boutique, her shebeen, and later, her café – on Railton Road in Brixton. She was a firm believer in if you want something, then you got to work hard to get it. The graft never phased her as Pearl was doing what she enjoyed, what she wanted. Through these things Pearl had taken back control of the life that others had almost taken from her. But hard times were looming once again. The arrival of Thatcher’s Britain in 1979 made life especially hard for both black and LGBTQ+ communities in the UK. Her boutique closed, and eventually so did her shebeen. Pearl opened a café, which soon became another favourite haunt of many in the black community, but it was forced to close just a few years later when footfall fell in the wake of the 1981 Brixton uprisings – as the black community protested against harsh injustice at the hands of the police and the authorities.
She was talented
Pearl never planned to be on the dole, but following the closure of her café, she was supported by the friends and allies she’d made through her business ventures, it kickstarted a new phase in her life. From Pearl the businesswoman emerged Pearl the artist. It started when Pearl drew pictures to thank people for their help during the hard times – often on the back of envelopes containing the bills she had no way of paying. Pearl expressed her thoughts in colour and thank goodness she did.
Her supporters responded by helping to provide the art materials to encourage Pearl’s creativity, and as her work became noticed, the gallery space to exhibit her art and outfits for opening nights. From local exhibitions, Pearl’s work eventually gained mainstream recognition when it was shown as part of Tate Britain’s Outsider Art exhibition in 2005, just a year before her death. Like Pearl, Outsider artists are rarely formally trained and simply make art for themselves and the people close to them, inspired by their life experiences and the world around them. Today, Pearl’s name as a visionary ‘Outsider’ artist is known throughout the UK and around the world, as her story is told in the art world, in the heritage sector, and by many in the media. A 2019 retrospective at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester brought Pearl’s art – and her story – to a whole new audience. Yet sadly, Pearl’s art only appears occasionally in public spaces, with many works stored in the vaults of museums and galleries, or owned by wealthy private collectors in the US and Europe. Some lucky friends still live in Brixton and still have their artworks of course – their treasured ‘thank you’ from Pearl.
She appreciated friends
Pearl loved people and they loved her back. Through her boutique, shebeen and café Pearl gathered an eclectic group of customers and friends who she really cared for. The feeling was mutual with people still speaking fondly of her. From those who knew Pearl personally, to those who feel as if they know her from the many legendary anecdotes and stories they’ve been told. When times were tough, Pearl saw the kindness she showed to others returned to her. The Brixton residents who bought Pearl’s work as a way of supporting her financially without being too obvious, jealously guard their pictures as prized possessions that hold many memories of a dear friend. Pearlina Alcock, the young woman from Jamaica with a headful of dreams and five pounds in her pocket, died in 2006, a respected artist and a beloved Brixtonian.
Your life matters
This may have been a whistle-stop tour of Pearl’s life but she left things that require a longer reflection – including powerful messages for all ages and generations. From the message Pearl brought with her from Jamaica – don’t stay in abusive situations or with people who want to rob you of the right to control your own life – to the message Pearl embodied throughout her life in England – great things can be achieved from small beginnings if you believe in yourself and others and have the determination to work hard and achieve your dreams. Pearl came through the good times and the bad to create her businesses, her art, and a legacy that will inspire others for years and years to come.
At the risk of making Pearlina Alcock ‘our Pearl’ sound like a saint, which would have made her howl with laughter and perhaps say “go bout yuh business” I will close by saying she would have been pleased to know she made a difference to people’s lives and continues to do so. From dressing Brixton through her boutique, to providing a safe, iconic space in her shebeen for black gay men, to feeding the local community Caribbean fare in her café, to celebrating her sexuality as a woman proud to identify as bisexual. And still today, through her art, her story, and the loving memories of all those who knew her – Pearl Alcock. A woman who helped to show us all the art of living fearlessly.
This article was first published at www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk
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