The concept behind the Migration Museum is such a good one and is needed more than ever in our divided Brexit broken country. This exhibition in temporary accommodation in Lambeth shows how seven major migration moments changed Britain. The title of the exhibition is ‘No Turning Back’.
It is useful to be reminded about the history that has forged Britain especially when the version of history portrayed by many in the EU referendum is one rewritten to suit the Little Englanders currently in the ascendant. Here we see that Britain has been connected to the world over the centuries with migrations in and out. Seven critical moments are represented here through artefacts and artistic responses.
I was struck by how the events that formed my own political education have become ‘history’. The Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s was represented with magazine covers and posters that fought back against the racist comments from some musicians (ones I admired!) in an age when people thought it was okay to make such comments. Also here, though, is the formation of the East India Company and the start of a strong connection between Britain and India as well as the expulsion of the Huguenots from Europe. Migrations of which Britain should be proud include the refuge granted to Spanish children during their civil war of the 30s and the German Jewish children who were brought to safety to escape the Nazi regime in Germany.
The section which I liked the best was the celebration of mixed race Britain. The 2011 census showed this to be a growing area of self-identity. It is the obvious next development of a multi-racial and multi- cultural society.
Photographs, art works, personal recollections and quotes all add up to an amazing exhibition in which to get lost on a wet afternoon. I loved it. As I finished, I was struck by a huge poster with a statement below it of a young man, who might be mixed race but who was not white, who voted for Brexit. I wanted/needed to know more. Why did he? What statement does it make that he is concerned about immigration in a society where he and others like him have been beneficiaries? It troubles me still but maybe I need to be challenged in my assumptions. In any case, there was no more from him on offer.
The British Museum is something of a place of pilgrimage for me so I suppose it is fitting that, this time, my visit there was to see the exhibition ‘Living with Gods’, an exploration of how religious artefacts have helped mankind make sense of the spiritual.
As always with high profile exhibitions, the people turn out so a route around the treasures on show involves high levels of patience. This is made more important by the fact that so many of the artefacts were quite small and laid out on table top arrangements. There was an element of waiting before I could get close enough to read and see.
Yet, it was worth it. The curating of exhibitions is a skill denied me but I am always grateful to the experts who seem to know what to include, how to lay it out and in what order. Here the story of different societies and how they behave in terms of religion is set out. What is striking is that there is little time spent on what people believe; the exhibition concentrates instead on the items related to religious practice. Why worry what the motivation is, what do they do?
The British Museum is able to call upon its own collection for most of these treasures and they come from across the ages and across the world. My list of favourites includes the juggernaut from India, acquired in the eighteenth century. It is from south India where a tradition of taking deities for an outing allowed people to see them. The scale model of a real juggernaut is in the museum. I was also taken with the Tibetan Thangka, an illustration of the wheel of life used as both a teaching and a devotional tool. The Lion Man from the ice age suggests that belief is universal and a human condition. To people of faith, though, the central point must be WHAT you believe.
In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
In London, so off to Tate Britain to see the exhibition ‘Queer British Art: 1867- 1967’, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of legislation to partially decriminalise homosexuality. The gallery was heaving with visitors heading for the major David Hockney show; somewhat telling that a gay artist drew bigger crowds than this attempt to show how being gay influenced the art.
I had a few problems with this exhibition, the largest being that not all the artists featured were known to be gay. The suggestion that he or she might have been is just a posh version of what the awful tabloid newspapers do when they want to ‘suggest’ a person’s sexuality.
Having grown up in the 70s when being thought to be gay by others was enough to bring around the abuse, it was a bit disappointing to see the same (but more refined) approach being used on people who are long dead and cannot speak for themselves. Lord Leighton’s work is here which seems to be enough to decide he must have been gay. I take the point, made by the curator, that many paintings were coded to convey messages that would have been picked up by gay people but that does not mean that all the Victorian artists here were gay themselves.
The two paintings I loved rose above the rest, with only the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell from Reading Prison of equal poignancy. Lord Leighton’s ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ and Henry Scott Tuke’s ‘The Critics’ were stunning.
In London, so off to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington to see the Lockwood Kipling exhibition. I was particularly keen to see this as it celebrates a man who could easily be forgotten, or overshadowed in his case. His son’s fame as a poet and author has endured while his work as a champion of India’s artistic heritage has been largely forgotten. ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling is a favourite book from my youth. I reread it as an adult, and had conflicting thoughts about the place of the British Empire’s role in history, but the edition I read had illustrations by Lockwood Kipling.
The story is a fascinating one. He attended the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was inspired by what he saw in the Indian galleries. He was a teenager but this was the start of a love affair with the arts and crafts of India. This alone makes me warm towards him; people who are inspired at an early age and go on to dedicate their careers in pursuit of their interests are always fascinating to me.
Lockwood Kipling is also connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum itself, although in its previous carnation as the South Kensington Museum. It is fitting, then, that it is here that his work and influence is celebrated. There are artefacts and images of India with an emphasis on the decorative arts that influenced him so much. There are pictures of the Great Exhibition as well as an evocation of the cities of Mumbai and Lahore, both of which were important in Kipling’s life. As the fame of his son spread, so Lockwood Kipling became involved in book illustration. In the exhibition are samples of his work. At the end was a ‘room’ with artefacts from Osborne House where he worked with Bai Ram Singh on the Durbar Room. My favourite item was a painting called ‘A Peep at the Train’ by Rudolf Swoboda.
I went to London to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition. This is now something of an annual pilgrimage for me. I always make an effort to get to the National Portrait Gallery to see the photographs on display. Each year I select my personal favourite before looking to see which works were awarded prizes by the judges and, for the first time, my choice coincided with the winner of the first prize. Obviously, my choice was based on the fact that I liked it. The judges would have used many more criteria, including technical ones.
‘Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya’ by Claudio Rasano took the honours. Once again, a photograph I admired, like so many in the exhibition, came from a series. In this case from a body of work with the title ‘Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare’. Once again, I would have liked to have seen the others.