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.

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