Being British, Stephen Lawrence Gallery

March 22, 2009

 

Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

This small but powerful survey of British art brings together work created over the past six years by nine artists based in the UK who all have at least one parent born outside Britain. Creating a perfect discourse between work and surroundings, the show explores British multiculturalism amid the buildings of Greenwich’s Old Naval College, with their long heritage of maritime and monarchy.

Beneath Wren’s dome in the imposing King William courtyard hang two of Chris Ofili’s Union Black flags, reimagined in red, green and black to represent black skin and African blood spilt over green land. Small yet defiant, they make a powerful political statement in a part of London steeped in slavery and black history.

In the only remaining part of the palace where Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary I of Scotland were born, Seamus Harahan’s video splices footage of train journeys between Dublin and Belfast to question the notion of borders and a split Irish identity torn apart by religion.

Appearing throughout the work, the union flag provides a common link, with much of the work standing as an angry reaction against it and the British establishment. There is a Tracey Emin neon, Red, White and Fucking Blue, and two of Hew Locke’s menacing, acid-hued watercolours of the Queen’s head. Cai Yuan and Xi Juan Jun, the two artists who in 1999 famously jumped into Emin’s unmade bed, now exhibit alongside her, their photographic diptych proposing that the only way to be accepted as a citizen is to die fighting for Britain.

The mood is sombre, evoking the powerlessness of the oppressed against the might of British rule and rules. Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus to be had here about the multicultural British experience, nor is a new unified British identity proposed. Yet in challenging what it is to be British, these artists make the template less rigid for us all.

Being British, The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London SE10

Starts 18 March Until 17 April Details: 020-8331 8260

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

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