As though in preparation for our pandemic times, the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in St. John’s Wood in London (it was initially established in that city’s East End in 1915) recently devoted considerable effort to expand online.
“This pioneering virtual museum has been designed over the past two years to substitute the large, centrally-located museum building that was, for 20 years and more, our ambition but which constantly proved unaffordable,” its homepage explains. “[It has] incurred no costs to buy, build or refurbish; no business rates; no utility costs; no security and staffing costs and it can be extended at will, with no planning permissions required and no rebuilding costs.”
It adds: “It is open 24/7 every day of the year whenever is most convenient for you to visit; there are no social distancing or health risks; no entry fees and no travel costs. We are as accessible to London Ontario, London Arizona, London Island, Chile, as we are to London England.”
Such visionary ambition merits curatorial imagination to match. However, Ben Uri’s first blockbuster “virtual” exhibition fails to live up to that unlimited promise. Midnight’s Family: 70 Years of Indian Artists in Britain, curated by Rachel Dickson and Shanti Panchal, is far richer than any similarly conceived project could have been in the museum’s physical footprint. Yet, the selection and set-up is distinctly unsatisfactory.
The main problem is the unwieldy conceptual baggage in the project’s DNA, which we are told is meant to address “the representation of Indian immigrant artists (both first and second generation) working in Britain for more than 70 years”. Shoehorned awkwardly together are Francis Newton Souza and Dhruva Mistry (who each spent years in the UK, but can’t possibly fit the category of immigrants to that country) as well as “native-borns” like Chila Kumari Burman and The Singh Twins.
Of course, it’s not the fault of Ben Uri’s team that these identitarian labels are so dodgy. Just in the last few decades, desis in the UK have been successively shepherded from being “Black” to “Brown”, they are “Asian” as well as BAME (the patently absurd “Black and Minority Ethnic”). Regretfully, the even more arcane BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Colour) seems likely to soon cross the Atlantic to add further confusion.
All these meaningless administrative terminologies leave out what’s essential in the human experience. Dom Moraes tellingly recounts in Never At Home, when he was accosted by a London policeman, “at the sound of my accent he stopped and looked at me hard. Then he said, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m really very sorry, He then stepped out of my way and saluted, After this I felt even more furious. England was my home. Was I to be treated like an immigrant?” (Note: Moraes lived in the UK for even fewer years than Souza and Mistry.)
To its credit, the Ben Uri exhibition ventures to address these contentions up front, via an excellent text by the art historian Zehra Jumabhoy, who poses the pertinent question, “Are the artists in Midnight’s Family too British to be considered Indian? Does the right to belong to one category mean summary expulsion from the other?” She points to Bharti Kher, the UK born-and-educated India-based purveyor of unremitting Orientalia, who is never included in shows like this, asking, “What makes an artist Indian versus British? Is it a choice one makes, one that is thrust upon one?”
When I wrote to ask more of Jumabhoy, she responded from London, “The slightly sprawling idiosyncratic line up reflects the paradoxical question of identity in the UK today: how do we define ourselves these days? Sometimes definitions are very strange things. In India, it is obvious that this is a show of Indian artists in Britain – but in Britain the main concern these days for South Asians is if we want to be Brown or Black.”
While that intrinsically nonsensical question holds zero interest for anyone outside the UK, it happily doesn’t overwhelm Midnight’s Family, especially the outstanding, politically-charged recent works by Shanti Panchal (Grenfell Fire and the Rescued Family, 2017) and The Singh Twins (Get Your Knee Off Our Necks and NHS V COVID 19: Fighting On Two Fronts, both 2020). Additionally, there are many other terrific contributions by artists we don’t get to see very often: Balraj Khanna, Sutapa Biswas, Raqib Shaw, Saleem Arif Quadri, Hormazd Narielwalla.
Jumabhoy says, “One of my personal favourites is Shanti Panchal’s Laxmi-Narayan and Son (1987) – it’s so lonely, the figures are so sad, and un-beautiful. They haunt one. Really this is an aspect of the diasporic experience for many Indian artists in the UK – a feeling of being separate and different, and culturally alone. It’s not my experience – my generation looks at identity in a very different way where it’s a choice, based on where one’s friends are, who one is hanging out with, how much money you have in your pocket at any given time to dive on a plane (when there is no Covid-19) and drift off to visit someone in another part of the world. Shanti’s work really doesn’t let us forget that there was (and is) another side to this story.”
Ben Uri’s shift to the virtual allows gambles impossible in bricks-and-mortar, like including Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan steel-and-PVC Marsyas (2002) which is a full 150 metres long. Much more of the same would have been apt and welcome. Thus, it does feel like a missed opportunity that Midnight’s Family didn’t push into multimedia: photography, film/video, sound, music, all areas in which the UK diaspora excels. How great it would have been, for instance, to view this exhibition along with a soundtrack of Talvin Singh and Cornershop, maybe Sheila Chandra.
Knowing he had been in the UK in the early years of this exhibition’s ambit, and a friend of Souza at the time, I emailed the Midnight’s Family catalogue to poet and editor Adil Jussawalla (he studied architecture in London in the late 1950s, then got an MA at Oxford in 1964) to ask what he thought of its categorisations.
Jussawalla wrote back what I think is the final word, that he and his contemporaries saw themselves “as internationalists and modernists, concerned with the various aesthetics that modernism provided, not with post-colonial ethnicities. I was in the ranks of ‘the coloured’, but with my own battles to fight. Though they may have run parallel to those of others in the ranks – West Indians, Nigerians, for example – despite the efforts of Tariq Ali, the British Black Panthers et al, they weren’t always fought on the same ground. Sectarian and other identities concern me only so far as I’m able to give them an aesthetic form that I hope my readers will find attractive. As far as I can tell, I think the message in that bottle is becoming more and more secondary.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.