Unexpected: Continuing Narratives of Identity and Migration
Ben Uri Gallery 17 February - 24 April 2016
I was thrown off course within minutes of arriving at the 'Unexpected:
Continuing Narratives of Identity and Migration', exhibition at the Ben Uri
Gallery, just off the famous Abbey Road. It was Tam Joseph's 'Handmade Map
of the World' that did it. The painting appeared pretty straight forward at
first glance, with its blue seas and oceans, great landmasses carved up into
sections - some large, some small, representing different countries of the
world with their borders intact. But, it was only until a fellow visitor
asked me to help her locate Israel that I realised things were not as they
should be. Our world order had been turned upside down.
For one thing Israel was in Central America, next to Senegal and Jordan.
Germany was located on the continent of Africa and China occupied great
swathes of North America. It got me thinking about my own country, or rather
countries, of origin. I say countries because sometimes when we migrate, we
leave one place we call home, settle down and then up sticks and move again.
In my case, that is three countries across three continents, spanning
roughly 170 years. The first is the Indian Sub-continent and the home of my
ancestors; the second is Guyana, a Caribbean country on the mainland of
South America, where my parents were born, and finally the UK on the
continent of Europe. The direct connection between all three is sugar, but
as migrants we are bound by so many other things as well. I drew an
imaginary line across the map, criss-crossing many unfamiliar boundaries.
India was now Spain, Guyana had replaced Romania and the UK was way off
course in South East Asia. It led me to wonder how our geographical spaces
would have shaped world events today if Tam's interpretation of the world
were a reality.
The exhibition, in collaboration with Counterpoint Arts showcases the work
of other artists which are equally thought-provoking. Jasleen Kaur
challenges the senses with an installation that evokes the spiritual world
over commerce, finance and the law. She highlights, through her own
experiences as a Scottish Indian artist, the dichotomy between East and
Western values in the face of personal hardship. When tragedy strikes some
people call a lawyer to right a wrong, others a Guru to banish evil spirits
that linger in the air.
In all, fourteen contemporary artists based in Britain are brought together
for this exhibition with migrant stories from Afghanistan to the former
Zaire and they hang alongside older art by Jewish émigrés.
The Ben Uri Gallery is the perfect setting to challenge notions of identity
through migration. It is small, personal, warm and friendly and offers just
the kind of reception weary travellers in search of a safe haven would
welcome. It was set up in the ghettos of Whitechapel, East London in 1915 as
a place where immigrant Jewish artists could explore their creativity,
develop their art and exhibit their work. More than one hundred years later
this is still a key focus of the gallery's work except that today it
embraces artists from across the world, nurturing and supporting them as
they challenge perceptions of migration, turn notions of identity on its
head and inject new ideas drawn from their own personal experiences.
Unexpected: Continuing Narratives of Identity and Migration continues until
April 24 2016
Lainy Malkani is a journalist and Director of the Social History Hub
Acrylic on board
© Tam Joseph