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.


Why can’t we be ourselves, like we were yesterday?


Go to the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A. It’s amazing, it’s huge, it’s massively relevant as a commentary on late capitalism and culture, and was really inspiring.

I didn’t know a lot about postmodernism – especially postmodern art – before I went, but feel at least a little more informed now, and also super keen to learn more. The exhibition covers loads of ground, from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and includes fine art, graphic design, product design, craft, sculpture, fashion, photography, film, literature and music. It emphasizes the break with modernism as a narrow, formal approach and ideology who’s promise of a utopian future collapsed in itself, replacing it with an experimental and less certain approach that picked over the corpse of the modernist dream, appropriating and reusing elements of modernism and all that went before it. The exhibition stressed that the postmodern art movement is impossible to neatly define and characterise, and that a plurality of approaches and ideas was precisely what made it so different from modernism.

At the moment I’m really interested in cities and dystopias, my favourite parts of the exhibition were the ‘paper architects’ of the late Soviet Union who were trying to deal with the fall of the Soviet dream.

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

I also really enjoyed (well I didn’t enjoy it, it was kinda depressing, but fascinating) watching the move from the radical, anti-establishment postmodernism of the 1970s, towards a totally self-aware and kind of grotesque celebration of capitalism, power and consumerism. It wasn’t all a celebration, with pieces like Jenny Holzer’s “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” billboard, and another billboard in the London Docklands grimly announcing that “Big Money is Moving In” – part of Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson‘s Docklands Community Poster Project.

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

It showed the contradictions a lot of the artists were wrestling with, producing art that tries to critique the spectacular consumerism of the 1980s but ultimately becoming yet another commodity. The exhibition referenced lots of pop culture that I was too young to grasp the significance of at the time, and all the stuff about appropriation, bricolage and Leví-Strauss (ANTHROPOLOGY! Yeah!) was awesome – it didn’t quite get as far as the Situationists and detournment, but the parallels were pretty interesting.

Go if you can, if you can’t, watch Blade Runner and maybe some Talking Heads and New Order videos.

I went with my mum who came out raging against the commodification of art – after ending with a series of pieces criticising 80s excess and consumerism, a neon sign tells you to Shop! and you’re sent back into daylight and a stack of exhibition souvenirs (I got some Baudrillard badges because I’m pretentious). I now want to read everything by JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, watch Brazil, and be Grace Jones and/or Annie Lennox when I grow up. Also, Frederic Jameson is now top of my reading list, as someone who has somehow escaped all of my university reading lists so far…

Infinitas Gracias and Charmed Life at Wellcome Collection, London

I was lucky enough to catch the brilliant ‘Miracles and Charms‘ exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection in London this weekend in between sessions at the Historical Materialism conference. ‘Miracles and Charms’ is actually two exhibitions, about belief and healing in London and in Mexico. Wellcome Collection is one of my favourite places in London, it’s as if someone made it especially for me, to indulge all of my geekiness under one roof.

The Infinitas Gracias exhibition, mainly composed of ex voto paintings, was amazing. Mexico has a rich artistic history, and for me on of the most intersting things about ex votos is how accessable and non-elitist they are – anyone could commission or paint their own, detailing the moment when a Saint was invoked to save the day – often but not always in medical emergencies. The paintings range from very simple to very elaborate, always showing the saint(s) to whom the piece is dedicated appearing above the scene of the crisis is a puff of smoke, with the story written down at the bottom of the page. The pictures appear in churches and shrines as public testimony to the power of the saints, and the exhibition showed how this tradition is continued and adapted with public offerings, prayers and testimonies gathered from a church in Jalisco also on display.

ex voto painting

'On 1 September 1937 I was attacked and wounded in my face and as a result I became ill and had to have an operation in a hospital in Monterrey. I asked Saint Francis of Real de Catorce with all my faith for my recovery, promising him this retablo. (Juan M. Perez).'

The ex voto, and the variations of it’s modern form, are an art form that anyone can create and are never intended to be commodities, to me this is why they’re so fascinating, they’re so different from the elitist, exclusionary art that seems to dominate elsewhere.

Next door, the Charmed Life exhibition shows Felicity Powell’s response to the amazing range of folkloric objects collected around working class areas of London in the not-so-distant past, used for luck, protection and healing. Glass beads to prevent bronchitis, red coral charms for good health, and loads of other awesome amulets and charms kept in pockets. Powell’s own work in response to the objects is also really beautiful.

Charmed Life was really intersting for me as it showed how prevalent folkloric and magical ideas about health and healing have been in London in the recent past, normally in anthropology (or maybe this is just me), magic and healing is something I associate with ‘the Other’  to a certain extent, but clearly this isn’t at all accurate.

Both of the exhibitions do a brilliant job of looking at the art, beliefs, creativity and innovation of ordinary working class people both in London and in Mexico, and are well worth a visit.