6 March 2012

Review: Migrations: Journeys into British art

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The Tate’s new Migrations exhibition doesn’t communicate the complex experiences of migration, but does have a varied display of art, says Georgia Hussey.

The knocking of wood against metal follows you from your first step into the Tate Britain’s Migrations exhibition. The most recent piece in the exhibition, Francis Alÿs’ video of a man hitting a London park fence, served less as a standalone piece (supposedly a walking exploration of the city) than as a constant reminder of the neat, chronological story of British migration you are following, from the stiff 16th and 17th century portraiture to modern day moving image.

However, this neat layout that divided migration into time frames, along with the slightly one-dimensional focus of the information accompanying the artworks (apparently migrant artists influenced British art and Britain influenced migrant artists), undermined the vibrant and varied art on display. The exhibition didn’t communicate the complex experiences of migration to, from and within Britain. And in particular, when art is so often used as a mouthpiece because other paths are cut off, the exhibition failed to appreciate the struggle of migration, the feelings of displacement and the pain of persecution that many of the pieces expressed.

Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti has said that the exhibition needed to better portray the challenges of migration; “[it needed to] show that for most people, particularly people who are not middle class artists, migration can involve a struggle.”

One section that did deal with this aspect of migrant art was called Artists in Pursuit of International Language, showing the art arising from an influx from the Commonwealth in the 50s and 60s. The racial tension of that period was exemplified in the art world when, as the Tate’s introduction stated, “upon arrival many of them realised that the predominantly Euro-American art establishment tended to view their work in terms of ethnicity” rather than in the artistic terms they deserved.

But this again, seems to oversimplify and sanitise the problems Pakistani, Indian and West Indian migrants faced when they relocated to Britain. Growing racism and increasing support for political groups, such as the White Defence League, saw violent racial hatred building in Britain, leading to the 1958 race riots in London and around the country. Perhaps these particular artists on show were most concerned about being accepted into the Euro-American art establishment, but it seems to underestimate the struggle that many migrants went through.

A collection that looks at how people have mutually influenced each other is definitely more digestible in an hour’s lunch break, but the exhibition could have achieved a lot more.  The story of Britain’s migrant history is a positive one – it’s led us to a society today that is diverse and inclusive – but was often not a pleasant one, and was certainly not a straightforward one. And so it’s therefore a hard story to tell. But it is a story that Britain, and the Tate Britain, should try harder to communicate.

Georgia Hussey

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