The concept of migration always sparks a reaction. On the one hand, it conjures up images of exotic cultures, the excitement of travel or the evocative poignancy of exile. On the other, it presses public panic buttons as the Other washes up on our shores, threatening national security and ‘our’ way of life. Migrations: Journeys into British Art at the Tate Britain presents both the romanticised and the politicised while inviting us to situate ourselves within a beautiful yet broken world in flux.
Walking through the exhibition, you’d be forgiven for finding very little connection between its disparate works, drawn from across the Tate’s collection, for it is only in seeing them through the lens of migration that their juxtaposition makes any sense whatsoever. The unifying migration theme does not, however, negate the feeling of incongruity that runs throughout, which is, perhaps, the point. For migration is an unsettling lens through which to view the world; poking holes in sedentarist worldviews, foregrounding unseen and uncomfortable realities, and challenging the idea that there is something inherently natural and immutable about who ‘we’ are.
In some earlier works, the connection with migration seems tenuous, for although the paintings’ style and subject matter were once shaped by ‘foreign’ influences, they now seem as ‘British’ as they come. In later works, the link is clearer when artists are labelled explicitly as ‘migrants’, by themselves or by others, and when their subject matters and art forms evoke wide-ranging experiences of movement, cultural fusion, transience and dislocation. Some of these experiences are celebrated as creative and energising, vibrant and transformative. Others scream out about painful realities of forced displacement or point to the violence and destruction of worlds colliding. In many cases, beauty and brokenness are somehow not mutually exclusive.
If, as Peter Phillips suggested in his recent post, art can draw people into an embodied understanding of the world in which they live, it is unsurprising that this exhibition encourages visitors to self-consciously position themselves within it – to experience rather than only observe. As an aid to this process, three ‘Personal Journeys’ through the galleries are presented, chosen by people whose attentions and imaginations are captured by different aspects of the exhibition. One end of the spectrum resonates with migration and interculturalism as enrichers of British art; the other takes issue with the contention that borders can be drawn around ‘British’ art in the first place.
Having travelled their routes, I moved on to mark out my own and, as I did so, reflected again on a Christian meta-narrative which draws liberally on notions of journeys, exile and a longing for home. In the same way, however, that the exhibition’s multiple migrations combine the conceptually evocative and messily political, so too are the Bible’s rich images of nations gathering together, of Jesus the Way, intertwined with gritty tales of forced migrations, ethnic conflict, persecution of minorities, and calls to defend the rights of the alien and stranger. Jesus and his parents: asylum-seekers in Egypt. The Word becoming flesh and moving into the neighbourhood.
I emplaced myself within Migrations: Journeys into British Art as someone who is British and a Christian at a time when the relationship between the two is hotly contested in the public domain. Through the migration lens, I scrutinised my identity as a member of a global yet culturally-embedded Church, grounded here yet shaped by an understanding of citizenship elsewhere, recognising this as both glorious and divisive.
What insights and reactions are stirred up in you by looking at yourself, at God, at others, at the Church, at the world, through the migration lens?
Migrations: Journeys into British Art is running from 31 January – 12 August 2012 at the Tate Britain, London.
Emily Bowerman is studying for an MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and also blogs at Here Nor There.