Director of human rights organisation Liberty
This exhibition shows that it is contentious to talk about ‘British’ art at all. Art has no borders. I think it would almost be wrong if people got to walk on this journey without some hindrance. Migration is not a freewheeling exercise and visitors should be reminded of this. Rather than wandering freely they should be stopped at moments through the show. Sometimes this experience would be pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. It would be good to show that for most people, particularly people who are not middle class artists, migration can involve a struggle. But then – I would say something ridiculously political, wouldn’t I?
Kurt Schwitters Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920–39
Room: Refugees from Nazi Europe
This work, with the materials from different places, exemplifies the idea of migration. And his story is one that is often repeated – you flee one place as a persecuted person, but you are a suspect in the safe haven so end up locked up.
Naum Gabo Linear Construction No.1 1942–3
Room: Refugees from Nazi Europe
It is natural migrant behaviour to want to settle in a community that you have already had contact with rather than go to another part of the country where there is nobody. This is a very contentious issue even today – as over recent years policy has tried to force people away from their settled community to even things out. It is one of the big political debates over the last 40 years.
Rasheed Araeen Rang Baranga 1969
Room: Artists in Pursuit of an International Language
If you think of identity as a supermarket basket, you want to choose what to put in. Someone looking in it at the checkout might make assumptions about who you are. But at least you chose how to define yourself at a particular moment. But artists such as Araeen are defined by others. It is no longer the supermarket checkout; it is closer to the military checkpoint – I tell you who you are. He says, ‘I am a minimalist,’ and I say, ‘No, you are a Pakistani’.
Gustav Metzger Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art 1963
Room: The Dematerialised Object
Destruction and creation are part of Metzger’s story. Here, with us standing on one side of the river looking through the destroyed canvas at this famous English landmark on the other, it is almost like the foreigner’s experience of Britain. Sometimes you get the clearer view from the outside.
Black Audio Film Collective Handsworth Songs 1986
Room: New Diasporic Voices
Although this was made after the riots in the early 1980s, it is incredibly timely after the events last summer. There have been many comments about the racial element of the recent disorder but this is about identity – young people saying that ‘trying to fit in doesn’t work for me. I am the one who has been pulled over by the police 100 times before I am 20. I am not going to take it lying down yet I am powerless. So I am going to talk or dress or act a certain way.’
Room: The Moving Image
Here we have a really important contrast with earlier times. People used to say goodbye to their old life – thinking they would never see their loved ones again. Now, with airline travel and modern communication, you can be here and over there at the same time. Life here can be nurtured and complemented by what you see on TV or the internet. An international experience is now part of British culture.