Sabah Mathur of Saffronart, London, on Tate Britain’s amazingly original exhibition Migrations.
London: The show currently on view at Tate Britain, London, raises interesting questions about the identity of British art. Titled Migrations it offers a novel approach to art as a continuum, flowing in from somewhere else, and addresses a topic that has always been provocative – interculturalism. The exhibition envisions British art as a dialogue with Europe, America, the Commonwealth and ex-colonies, including India, and demonstrates how Britain has always been influenced by the migratory; or, how ideas from beyond its borders are constantly being incorporated in the culture.
The exhibition opens by demonstrating that the most distinguished art made in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries emerged from the hands of artists who came from modern day Holland and Belgium, either as religious exiles or in search of financial reward. As well as bringing a new sophistication to portraiture – especially after Van Dyck arrived at the behest of Charles I – artists from these countries also brought in fresh artistic genres like marine painting and landscape painting. We are then taken on a whirlwind tour of the effects of incoming cultures on British art, from 19th century dialogues between Britain, France an America through the work of artists such as the Frenchman James Tissot and two Americans, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, to avant-garde Jewish artists of the early 20th century such as Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian, who fled to Britain during the Second World War. The exhibition also highlights the mid-century lure of Britain as a centre for engagement with an international language of Modernism for artists from the commonwealth, and the work of artists from second generation immigrant backgrounds, engaging with questions of race and identity in Thatcher’s Britain.
What we found particularly interesting is the section of the exhibition dedicated to migrant artists from commonwealth countries who moved to Britain in the 1950s and 60s to study and engage with modernism. Initially, their work was often viewed in terms of their ethnicity. This marginalisation led many of the artists to challenge, and, through their own practices, to redefine modernism. This section includes works by two Indian artists (F.N. Souza and Avinash Chandra), and two Pakistani artists (Anwar Jalal Shemza and Rasheed Araeen). Although Rasheed Araeen is quite well represented with a number of works, the only Souza on display is Crucifixion (1959), which is part of the Tate’s permanent collection, purchased in 1993. This painting is typical of Souza’s imagery made around biblical themes, and is indicative of his bitterness towards the Catholic Church and the tremendous anguish this led to.
Here we should say that this is essentially an in-house show, with all but a handful of works taken from Tate’s own collections. In fact, the idea for the show arose from an issue with Tate Britain’s collection itself: it covers British art over the last 500 years – yet a significant proportion of it is not British at all. While that is admirable, it does mean that in several cases the curator had to make do with what she had.