FOR 16 weeks each spring and autumn, a bus decorated in yellow, white, and grey with scenes of bee hives and people busy building, can be seen travelling around Scotland. Rather like the phone box in Doctor Who, with its high-tech interior, the bus has a surprise in store: when you enter, you immediately find yourself in a bijou art gallery with the latest audio-visual equipment.
Travelling Gallery was formed in 1978 by Creative Scotland, which continues to fund it, with the support of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and with the aim of making art accessible and inclusive to the most outlying areas and city suburbs devoid of galleries. It exhibits contemporary art on important moral and social issues, and also organises supporting educational workshops.
At present, Andy Menzies acts as driver and guide, while the curator, Claire Craig, and her colleagues from the Cultural Department of Edinburgh City Council take it in turns to be present to answer questions and interact with visitors.
“When people are not used to going into formal art galleries, they are quite relaxed about getting on a bus to see pictures free,” Claire Craig told me. “Also, because the art is contemporary, they are not embarrassed to say what they honestly think, and we’ve had some wonderful discussions. At our public shows, one person often comes along and then goes back to fetch their friends or family, making it all worth while.”
Currently, the exhibition “Displaced” explores in film, photography, print, and painting the response to global migration and the refugee crisis from six very different renowned artists who have all either experienced it personally or been closely connected with it.
A billboard-size print covering the gallery wall is Kofte Airlines by the Turkish artist Halil Altindere, which shows an unbelievable picture of people crowding on top of a plane as it takes off, a dangerous practice, but fairly common in the Middle East as an alternative to risking a sea journey in a small boat.
Alberta Whittle is more defiant in her Lessons in Welcome, two similar watercolours of a large sun over a blue sea. On one is written “When did you arrive?” and on the other, “When are you leaving?”
alberta whittle/philip solovjovAn installation shot of Alberta Whittle’s Lessons in Welcome
Her film Sorry not Sorry tracks across the sugar plantations in the Caribbean with men threshing the cane, then on to a liner similar to the Empire Windrush, then on to David Lammy making the impassioned speech in the Commons about the treatment of these people from the Caribbean.
Her own family came to Scotland from Barbados, and much of her art revolves round the subject of hostile environment, and identity.
The photojournalist Brendan Bannon lets the refugees speak for themselves. He worked in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, helping young people to express creatively with a camera the loss and disruption that they have experienced because of war. The result is a compilation of images away from the clichés, including comradeship and fun. In one image, two boys are having a mock sword fight with sticks and tin pots on their heads. In another, the young refugees are dancing and playing on the beach.
Elizabeth Kwant takes a sardonic view of the stereotypical holiday poster promising sun-drenched beaches and romantic couples tasting exotic food. In Habeas Corpus, her departure lounges are stark immigration Removal Centres in Harmondsworth, Brook House, Colnbrook, and Yarl’s Wood, with tables and chairs set either side for the immigration officer to question the asylum-seeker.
The Bureaucracy of Angels is a 12-minute film by Broomberg and Chanarin, originally shown at King’s Cross station in 2016, reflecting on the demolition of 100 boats carrying North Africans who hoped to land and settle in Sicily. They were taken off the boats safely to be dispersed in various ways, and their boats were beached on the concrete forecourt of Porto Pozallo in Sicily to be destroyed. Close-ups, mostly of young men, show them sitting motionless and expressionless, packed into the relief boats, their lifejackets glinting under the lights as they are piloted into port. Other shots show the small boats in a heap on the shore while a story-singer accompanies the film with the famous plaintive ballad “Terra ca nun senti”, telling of the sadness of arriving and leaving the island.
The central figure is the digger, whose huge head rears up over the sea like a prehistoric monster opening and shutting its jaws as its great teeth endeavour to tear apart and crush the small wooden boats. The film’s sharp simplicity and creative camera work makes it a very moving piece. It is available on YouTube.
Until 28 June. Based at the City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh. Phone 0131 529 3930. For tour dates and further information, see travellinggallery.com