THE exhibition “Unexpected: Continuing Narratives of Identity and Migration” is founded on the sharing of stories, where our story becomes your story, and vice versa. After 100 years of exploring identity and migration in London through the eyes of Jewish émigré artists, the Ben Uri Gallery has opened its doors to the next generation of migrants and refugees.
Two artists whose work appears in this exhibition also featured in “Stations of the Cross 2016” during Lent: the Jewish émigré artist Jacob Epstein, and Güler Ates, who was born in eastern Turkey, but has lived and worked in London for the past 17 years.
On 2 February, Ates invited another artist to wear a garment made of hundreds of baby clothes while walking across the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern, and back across the Thames to the Headquarters of the Salvation Army, where this garment formed the Tenth Station.
During the performance, volunteers had to wrestle to hold on to the garment as the unexpectedly strong wind threatened to blow it away. The difficulty of moving this fabric, designed as a reminder of children who have died in journeys to escape conflict, symbolised the difficulties and struggles being encountered by today’s refugees.
In Home Performance I, 2014, her work included in “Unexpected”, a veiled figure crosses the foreground in Lapa, a neighbourhood of Rio famed for its architectural monuments and Bohemian culture, pulling a house behind her. This performance, recorded in a photo explores concepts of displacement, particularly the notion that we carry our “mental home . . . wherever we go”. One question expressly and expressively explored throughout her work is the extent to which we ever really know the person in front of us or her/his pain.
One way in which we can know something of those who are “other” than us is by way of their visual stories. The Ben Uri collection explains the history of the Jewish émigré community through traditionalist and modernist vocabularies that frame the artists’ “forced journeys” from Russian pogroms and the late Nazi persecution and genocide in Europe.
Ben Uri is saying, through community art projects (involving Oxford House) and this shared exhibition, that our story is also your story. As a result, this exhibition pairs paintings and sculpture from the collection with contemporary pieces by artists who work with Counterpoints Arts to create fertile artistic dialogues.
As in Ates’s work, many of the works in “Unexpected” use textiles and material as both medium and subject to explore concepts of personal identity. In part, this reflects the heritage of the Jewish rag trade in the East End of London. These textile pieces explore the parallel processes of making clothes and the construction of self for people who were regularly immigrants to this country.
The swallows in Zory Shahrokhi’s installation sculpture Flying are made from the cloth sent to the artist by her Iranian friends and family since she left. Migration for swallows is a hazardous time and many birds die from starvation, exhaustion, and in storms.
A Central St Martin’s graduate and refugee, Salah Ud Din, specialises in handwoven textiles exploring his reactions to culture and society and centred on concepts of transformation. In his Androgyny collection, both the series of feathers and the double-sided handwoven textiles record the extraordinary physical transformation of a female pheasant as she transforms her appearance in order to protect her young brood.
The Shoe Shop III by Julie Held examines the experience of longing through objects often associated with female identity, as well as the experience of being outside and looking in.
David Glasser, Chief Executive of Ben Uri, argues that museums have a unique opportunity to exploit their assets as an effective and needed vehicle for “social integration”, which is, and will continue to be, one of contemporary society’s greatest challenges. This is predicated on the idea that art is a universal, unspoken language between people of diverse ethnicity, social status, and age.
As a Museum of Art, Identity and Migration which is for everyone, Ben Uri is transforming itself by sharing its space with fellow minority communities so that together stories of recent émigré journeys to London can be told, and contemporary art emerging from within these communities can be exhibited. “Unexpected” demonstrates the value of such an approach and the creativity that can emerge from it. It provides a pattern for others to follow.
“Unexpected” is at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, 108A Boundary Road, London NW8, until 24 April. Phone 020 7604 3991.