Migration Stories, portraits and politics*

I enjoyed parts of the newly re-opened Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Their section on tartan, where they explained the British tartan obsession as the result of a kind of romantic exoticism by British – and English – rulers, and a symbol of British Empire, more than its to do with Highland culture, was really interesting. That said, their staff all had to wear tartan skirts and trousers, so who knows what’s going on there.

The top floors had the usual portrait gallery fare of Kings, Princes, and other aristocratic and well positioned rich ruling class people who posed for repetitive and vain portraits, occasionally commissioning pictures of their wives, which are included in the gallery maybe as a nod to gender balance. The small but interesting section on 19th century women was adorned with quotes from Charlotte Brontë, Emeline Pankhurst and others, with portraits of suffragettes and physicists and artists. The photography section had some amazing work, the pieces on romanticism and urban and rural landscapes were brilliant, as was the section on childhood and urban space.

One of the collections I was particularly interested to see was the Migration Stories series, which focussed on links between Scotland and Pakistan. Part of this was a series of photographs by Verena Jaekel, A Scottish Family Portrait.

Mohammad and Anas Sarwar with their Family, Glasgow, 9 July 2011

Mohammad and Anas Sarwar with their Family, Glasgow, 9 July 2011

In this series, Jaerkel has documented a series of Scottish Pakistani families, many of whom contain people with MBEs and OBEs, politicians, councillors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on. I was excited to think that maybe the Portrait Gallery might be kicking against its the usual tendency of formulaic portraits of rich people, free for the viewing pleasure of us unnoteworthy plebs, and starting to maybe include portraiture of the people who actually shape history.

With a selection of OBEs and business people, the gallery has stayed true to form by looking only at those at the top of the heap, and holding them up as examples for us to admire. Perhaps the very fact that those pictured have roots in Pakistan is enough to make this exhibition interesting, or maybe does something to get rid of the image that everyone brown wants to unleash jihad on their host country (does anyone actually think that any more? Did the wave of  “but they’re just like us!” documentaries, exhibitions, magazine features post-9/11 not work? And if they didn’t, why would one more exhibition change that?). To me, the choice of subject, and the glowing statements about how prosperous and integrated and hard working all these people are just seemed to reinforce the idea that it’s only the rich establishment who are worthy of celebration on the walls of national galleries, and that only those non-white families who “fit in” to British cultural norms are acceptable.

I’m not arguing for the opposite, an orientalist, voyeuristic exhibition of how very strange and exotic and charmingly impoverished migrant families are, and how very Other they are, although there’s always plenty of that to be found in the mainstream media – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding being a horrific case in point. It’s more the whole format of portrait galleries, and the politics of who they represent that I think needs a total overhaul. The Miracles and Charms exhibition at the Wellcome Collection was far more interesting than most of the work in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in that it showcased art and artifacts collected from working class people, the people who rarely get onto the walls of galleries unless through the lens of someone else’s camera. Instead of a whole museum full of kings, princes, and male politicians, with a token room for well-educated women and rich, safely integrated Asians, a portrait gallery that actually reflected the historical and contemporary population of Scotland, warts and all, would be far more enjoyable.

*Usual disclaimer: I’m not an art critic, I’m mostly uninformed, sorry.


Reading Marx’s Capital… with Stills Gallery and the History of Art Department


 In an attempt to make the most of my current state of underemployment I’m filling my schedule with all the things I won’t have time for once I get that imaginary really good job that will help me pay my rent. My idea of a good night out is going to a reading group organised by the Uni of Edinburgh History of Art dept. and Stills Gallery, reading Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 with the guidance of David Harvey’s lectures.

Quite looking forward to reading with people from an art background rather than the social scientists I’m used to, will give me lots of new ideas and perspectives!


UC Berkeley anthropology library occupation takes on the administration and WINS!

Saw this news article from The Daily Californian about the successful occupation of UC Berkeley’s anthropology library, had to reproduce it in full. Proof that direct action and student occupations can win their demands.

70 Students, Staff, and Faculty gathered at Kroeber Anthro Library to protest libraries closing early 9 (c/o The Daily Californian)

By Amruta Trivedi

Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:15 pm
Updated Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:25 pm

The occupation of UC Berkeley’s anthropology library ended Saturday evening when campus administrators agreed to meet the demands of protesters and restore the library’s hours.

The demonstration began as a “study-in” Thursday evening in protest of cuts made to the library’s operating hours for the spring semester after a long-time library staffer resigned unexpectedly. About 30 protesters were in the library when news came that their demands had been met.

Tom Leonard, UC Berkeley’s university librarian, signed an agreement with protesters Saturday to restore the anthropology library’s hours to its fall 2011 schedule as soon as students can be recruited to work during those additional morning hours. According to the agreement, recruitment will start on Monday.

The original demands that protesters sent to administrators also requested that the campus find a full-time staff member to work in the library within the next 30 days, but the campus agreed to them only after negotiating to start the search for a full-time staff member in that time period instead, according to Yvette Felarca, a national organizer for BAMN.

Terrence Deacon, the chair of the campus anthropology department, who has spent much the last two days in the library and served as the liaison between library occupiers and campus administrators, said in an email that Leonard signed the agreement after small changes were made. During hours when there is no professionally trained library staff present, the circulation desk will be closed, but the library will remain open for computer use and as a study space, Deacon said in the email.

Deacon, who said he has been in conversation with administrators throughout the protest, said “there is good faith at the administrative level” about the students who occupied the anthropology library.

Although there were changes made to the protesters’ original list of demands, many at the library consider the agreement with administration to be a victory for their cause.

“This is an example for how to protect public education,” Felarca said. “It shows that students and community members are determining what a public university is.”


Amruta Trivedi is the lead academics and administration reporter


Tough Mary Is Tough (RIP Etta James)

Don’t bring me poses, when it’s shoes I need.

Don’t bring me flowers, don’t bring me the sea.

Come on and bring me some diamonds, that’ll suit me fine!

And I’ll love you forever, and you’ll be mine.

Dissertation full of WORDS

Dissertation word cloud

This is as close as I can bring myself to look at my dissertation again right now, after submitting at the start of December. I’m supposed to be rewriting it as a pamphlet for the Edinburgh Chiapas Solidarity Group, and as a research proposal for PhD funding applications, but so far I’ve barely dared to look at it again for fear of it being terrible.

‘Glaxo Builds Bonny Babies!’ Unless you’re Argentinian, of course

The Buenos Aires Herald today announced that GlaxoSmithKline, the global pharmaceutical giant, has been fined 400,000 Argentinian pesos after the deaths of 14 babies during clinical trials in Argentina. That’s about £59,500, from a company worth around £73.8 billion, the 5th largest company on FTSE.

Two doctors were also fined 300,000 ARS each, for their involvement in the trials which were carried out between 2007 – 2008. GSK were trialling a vaccine against pneumococcal bacteria, and recruited around 150,000 babies under the age of one for the trial.

GSK were charged with experimenting on humans and falsifying parental consent for babies to be involved with the trial. Witnesses claimed doctors involved with the clinical trial bullied illiterate parents into signing to 28-page consent forms, and leading parents to believe their child would not receive any other vaccines if permission to take part in the clinical trial was refused.

Witnesses also state that many people who wanted to leave the programme were not allowed to, and that doctors did not respond to calls by concerned parents and carers when their children displayed adverse reactions to the vaccines.

GSK have denied any wrongdoing, and claimed that none of the babies’ deaths were related to the trial. They say that all the babies that died had been given a placebo, and are going to appeal against the fines. They also deny bribing participants, but have not commented on the tactics described by witnesses in the court case.

Clinical trials of drugs mostly destined for sale in the developed world are increasingly “offshored” developing countries, with Latin American and other “second world” countries a firm favourite due to their combination of lax regulations and health infrastructure sufficient for conducting trials. GSK would have found it relatively easy to recruit participants for this trial in Argentina (as well as Panama and Colombia, the other sites for this trial) compared with say the USA or UK, and labour and other overheads would also come at a reduced cost. GSK can use bullying tactics to get access to the bodies of babies from poor families in the third world, when such an approach just wouldn’t fly in the UK or USA.

Adriana Petryna has written extensively on this topic, and a free PDF of her 2007 article ‘Clinical Trials Offshored: Private Sector Science and Public Health’ is available here, and her book ‘When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects‘ also deals with this subject in depth. Petryna does well to highlight the irony of clinical trials being conducted among populations far too poor to afford the drugs that are developed as a result of them. This shows GSK’s claim that “Only 12 [babies in the clinical trial] have died throughout the country, which is a very low figure if we compare it with the deaths produced by respiratory illnesses caused by the pneumococcal bacteria” to be a somewhat moot point: as respiratory diseases are predominantly linked to poverty in Latin America, its not likely that GSK will be giving away the fruits of their labour to the children most in need of it for free.

Of course I’m not arguing against the development of vaccines and the use of clinical trials altogether, but the GSK case once again highlights how Big Pharma can cut costs, cut corners, and carry out their research in developing countries without fear of reprisal and with big profits in mind. After all, a fine of £58,000 for a company worth £73.8 billion is barely a drop in the ocean.


From Edinburgh to Sri Lanka: STRIKE!

University of Edinburgh on strike, by Joel Sharples

University of Edinburgh on strike, by Joel Sharples

This is really, really late, but I was deep in deadline hell last week when this post would have been at it’s most relevant. That said, we haven’t won yet, in fact it feels like we’ve only just got started defending higher education, and arts education specifically, from being undermined by education for profit. I wrote about University of Edinburgh students going into occupation ahead of the #N30 strike last week, and reposted the RSAnimate lecture about de-industrialising education this morning.

I wanted to post the section of an article read out by Prof. Jonathan Spencer, at the teach-out organised by the Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition at the library picket line last week. Prof. Spencer also emailed this round to the whole anthropology department, and his email is reproduced below.

Library picket line teach-out, N30, from Alasdair Thompson

Library picket line teach-out, N30, from Alasdair Thompson

Dear Colleagues and Students

As you know, many of us are on strike today in protest at the changes imposed on our pension scheme by University employers. As background I thought I would share with you some passages from a long article, co-written by our recent graduate Harini Amarasuriya (now a Senior Lecturer at the Open University in Colombo), and published in the national press in Sri Lanka earlier this year. The strike by FUTA, the academic union, in Sri Lankan universities this year was an extraordinary event which opened up a space for dissent and critical discussion in a society where dissent and criticism had been ruthlessly crushed in the last days of the civil war. Here are some highlights from the article:
The impulses that led us to seek employment and a career within academia were clearly not economic. We all walked into the university system with our eyes wide open as to what our economic condition would be. Most of us took the plunge because we hold on to an ideal of university life where ideas matter; independence and critical skills are valued, not feared. We have listened wistfully to stories of the past of fiery debates and arguments in senates and faculty boards, of brilliant and colourful personalities stalking our corridors, of their intellectual achievements and eccentric exploits. These legends also inspired us to choose this career path. We chose academic careers because we believed in a certain way of life, a certain form of engagement with the world. Over the years what we got was under-funded and under-resourced institutions coming under increasing political control by governments to whom education was no longer a priority. Given their environment, combined with the impossibly low salaries offered, the universities no longer attracted the best minds and inevitably took a turn towards mediocrity and apathy. And with a few exceptions and while trying to maintain some standards of excellence, most of us went with the tide!
This is not the first (and will not be the last) regime to use political power to interfere with the autonomy of universities. But safeguarding that autonomy requires academics to take their rights and privileges seriously and to fight to protect it. We reiterate that these rights and privileges are intrinsic to our ability and our obligations to fulfil our core functions in civil society. It is important that we do not forget that this fight has to happen within as much as outside the universities. As the UNESCO Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education says, university autonomy is what enables the academic community to speak out with responsibility and independence on the ethical, cultural and social problems of their time. The current FUTA trade union action has enabled us to reflect on and act on these issues both inside and outside our institutions. The trade union action being suspended does not mean that our fight to protect our privileges and fulfil our responsibilities need come to an end. It is up to us to also hold FUTA accountable for the challenge they laid before university teachers at the seminar in Jaffna when one speaker asked us what we were going to do when our wallets and handbags were filled. The trade union action has been suspended even prior to our wallets and handbags being filled; perhaps our union leaders who have been exhorting us to keep fighting need to explain why they gave up the fight long before we were ready to do so.
The current mood of the academic community shows that it was not merely the salary issue which drew us on to the streets. The intransigence and inanity of the current regime and the humiliating treatment meted out to university teachers has had a positive effect. It has, without doubt been a significant factor in causing them to finally rise up and say enough is enough. You can push a community so far and no further. Perhaps, a more significant factor is the threat to the very future and survival of the country’s much cherished public education system. University teachers are now making it clear that they will not stand silent and watch the dismantling of this system. The demand for decent salaries is based not merely on self interest but also on real fears that the erosion of adequate funding is an insidious way of destroying these institutions from within. FUTA is also asking for adequate funding of education as a whole which is a sine qua non for sustainable development.
The article can be read in two parts here: