Migrations:reconstructing 'Britishness' in art

The Tate Britain exhibition, ‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’ highlights migrants’ central role in the development of British art, as well as exploring tensions that arise from such mobility. Our cultural heritage owes much to the circulation of ideas and people, argues Jenny Allsopp

Jennifer Allsopp
23 February 2012

‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’ explores five hundred years of British art through the lens of migration. Raising fundamental questions about our national heritage and its intersection with individual identities, it is a deeply affective and timely addition to contemporary debates surrounding migration and ‘Britishness’. The fact that the exhibition is composed almost entirely from well-known works in the Tate Collection is a powerful statement about the way movement has the power to both unsettle and enhance that which we take for granted, and not a weakness as some critics have claimed. The exhibition forces us to ask, what does it mean for something, or indeed someone, to be accepted into the British canon? And how have migrant artists responded creatively to their often equivocal relationships with the British Isles? Importantly, through perhaps still tentatively, it raises the possibility for art to contribute to the development of a more inclusive British cultural consciousness. With the launch of Britain’s first Migration Museum imminent, it seems that this project has already begun.

That much of the British artistic canon is composed of contributions by migrants - including economic migrants, refugees, or second generation migrants - is a little-known fact, but a significant one that gives this exhibition a powerful and eclectic narrative thread. Even the most staunch art fans may be surprised to learn that it was foreigners that brought the quintessentially British genres of portraiture and landscape art to Britain, and that a third of founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts back in 1768 were migrants. They may be less surprised to see how art has been effectively employed in previous years to critically document racism, exclusion and other social ills related to migration in modern Britain. Attempting to thematically bridge 500 years of British art is of course no easy feat, and criticism that the exhibition is somewhat jilting is well-founded. Yet this motion, driven by the sheer volume and diversity of “journeys into British art”, is also its crowning accomplishment; a force that opens up new possibilities for the mainstreaming of migration’s role in British art and culture.

The exhibition moves quickly, but not without purpose. Paintings by Van Dyck and other 16th and 17th Century portraitists and landscape artists fill the opening gallery. Most came to Britain from the Netherlands, we learn, to paint for the English court. Paintings by the likes of Canaletto and Bartolozzi follow, mapping the journeys of many Italians who came to Britain at the behest of the aristocracy at the time of the Grand Tour. By the third room we have already moved into the 19th century, a chance to contemplate works by controversial new Londoners, such as James Tissot. The movements of many of these Frenchmen, induced by economic motives and sparked the violence of the Franco-Prussian war, embody the complicated motives of many people on the move today.

Varied though these works are, a narrative is clearly at work. This narrative is a fluid one that encompasses the plurality of migratory pushes and pulls in the past and present: war, persecution, lack of opportunities at home; safety, friends and opportunities abroad.

The short biographies and carefully chosen facts which complement these early paintings open a window into the experience of migration. In the section on ‘Portraiture and New Genres’, we learn, for example, that Louis Francois Roubila, a leading figure in the sculpture movement, arrived in England from France in 1730 as a Huguenot refugee. His sculpture of the German-born composer, Handel, tells another story: of a musical genius who went on to settle in England himself as a British subject. Peter Peri’s concrete tribute, ‘Mr Collins from the A.R.P’ in the section on ‘Jewish Artists and Art’ offers an equally personal portrait, this time of the realities of integration in wartime Britain. A refugee from Hungary who arrived in London in 1936, Peri pioneered the use of concrete in British art. He had served with Mr Collins in the Air Raid Rescue Service, defending Britain.

Critics of the exhibition have lamented that these micro-narratives are too disparate and shed little light on what migration means for modern Britain, however much of this criticism is misdirected and fails to engage with current debates on either migration or British identity. In recent decades, identity and movement have been analysed at both a subjective and collective level in an intersectional and contested way, moving debates away from a monolithic ‘Britishness’. In this context, the curators’ attempt to weave a vast selection of individuals together through space and time creates a tellingly intricate and multi-layered web. The experience of a wealthy 18th Century Huguenot male refugee is a far cry indeed from that of Manor Hatoun, a Beirut-born Palestinian woman in exile whose moving portrait of love and loss in ‘Measures of Distance’ appears in the section ‘New Diasporic Voices’. But it is also true that both artists once faced persecution, and fled, to Britain. Such commonalities, reductive though they are, can be important ingredients in a much broader process of heritage construction of a personal or a collective nature.

At a time when some see the concept of Britain as a refuge as redundant, or a political card waved in European courts devoid of British cultural resonance, much of the Jewish art featured sparks poignant parallels with Britain’s reception of today's refugees. A display of letters from the Artists’ Refugee Committee, which was established in 1938 to help artists escape from Nazi Europe, shows the possibility of creating a culture of hospitality through popular consent. The letters stress the artists’ need for protection, but also their rich contribution to British and European cultural life. Other letters call for individuals to be released from internment, emphasising widespread media criticism of the government’s “ill-considered policy” of interning all Germans and Austrians who arrived in Britain. The spirit of such campaigning is still alive. It is exemplified in the recent appeal to halt the deportation of Cameroonian playwright Lydia Beson, which was spearheaded by British artists.

We should certainly be wary of depoliticising the huge contribution that migrants have made to British arts, or of romanticising their personal experiences as migrants in Britain. Indeed the subjective engagement of some of the exhibition’s more recent works highlights the marginalisation of certain migrants in modern Britain. Sonia Boyce’s 1987 work, ‘From Tarzan to Rambo’ is a powerful portrait of the stereotyping of migrants in popular culture in the late 80s, and, to quote Gilroy’s influential publication of the same year, of the problematic position of ‘black in the Union Jack’. Keith Piper’s famous ‘Go West Young Man’ makes a similarly poignant claim. Its exploration of the black subject as “the spectre haunting the front pages of the tabloids” may resonate with many contemporary migrants in Britain.

The fact remains that without migrants’ contributions, Britain’s artistic heritage would paint a sorry picture. Through its celebration of this understated though remarkably pertinent message, the ‘Migrations’ exhibition should make us feel positive about migrants’ vital contributions to British heritage, and to ‘Britishness’ itself. We should of course be wary of both the impossibility and undesirability of territorialising many phenomena pertaining to migration. However, with every disclaimer considered, mapping "journeys into British art” through time allows us to celebrate our common heritage in a way that incorporates a culture of migration and asylum into the mainstream. With Britain’s first migration museum on its way, the exhibition is forward-looking in its examination of how migration and ‘Britishness’ interact fundamentally. It contributes a fascinating and daring new perspective to the very notion of ‘British’ art that will, it is hoped, play a key role in reconstructing ‘Britishness’ in all its many forms.

Read more articles from 50.50's migration debate People on the Move





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