Spotlight Society

Saris, cardigans and the writing on the wall

‘The Sari Shop, The Golden Mile, Leicester’

‘The Sari Shop, The Golden Mile, Leicester’

For years, chicken tikka masala has ruled as Britain’s favourite dish, if one goes by the various gastronomical polls that populate newspapers here. Its origin is shrouded in the confusion that accompanies migration, and the mixing, sometimes not amicably, of two distinct cultures.

What isn’t in question, however, is the fondness that the U.K. has for the product of Punjabi cuisine and the ingenuity of Glaswegian immigrants. A former Secretary of State, Robin Cook, even went as far as proclaiming that chicken tikka masala was “a true British national dish” in 2001.

Public discourse and consciousness surrounding migration have changed in the West in the past two decades. Gone are the heady liberal days of the ‘90s, when Blairite policies meshed with a general consensus that immigration to the U.K. was a good thing; now public debate, fostered by rancorous

politicians and leading newspaper articles, tends to centre around open-ended questions, like “Is Britain British?” and “Will they fit in?”

‘Everyone’s welcome’

What’s often overlooked is the reality of the migrant experience, steeped in ordinariness, and the cultural contributions that different diaspora groups have brought to the U.K. It’s this subject that the first exhibition by the Museum of Migration, titled ‘100 Images of Migration’, seeks to show, especially in a post-Brexit country.

“It’s the topic on everyone’s lips,” says Sophie Henderson, Director of the Migration Museum Project. “And what people think about migration is obviously very important.”

With a selection of images that has been entirely crowdsourced (the project teamed up with The Guardian and asked people to send images they felt captured migration), what Henderson’s team has managed to come up with is unique.

“There are brilliant temporary exhibitions that deal with particular diaspora groups in the country,” says Henderson. “But none that focuses on all of them, and immigration in its entirety.”

“What happens in the public atmosphere is that it gets so febrile and heated that the reality of the migrant

experience, the ordinary aspect of it, gets overlooked,” she adds. “Everyone can relate to moving to a different country, be it for employment or for other reasons. Everyone has a story.”

The method of getting images—born out of a combination of having few resources but also wanting to create a gallery that had maximum impact on its viewers—has let to an eclectic range of photographs.

“What’s great is that we’ve got as broad a scope of images as possible,” says Aditi Anand, Head of Creative Content at the Project. “Some of them are professional photographs taken by Magnum photographers, others are amateur, and some are even just people at home taking pictures on their smartphones.”

This range helps show the diversity of the migrants’ experience to Britain, according to Anand. “We aren’t trying to show anything, so instead of trying to view migration in compartments, we are displaying what the photographers have to say.”

Some of the most memorable images are those that juxtapose the mundane with the racial tension that diaspora groups faced in the 20th century.

One particularly striking image, which shows British-Asian children playing beneath a hoarding in 1980s’ Bradford, perfectly captures the attitude of the times—under a sign saying “everyone is welcome” is scrawled racist graffiti. But the children continue to play, unaware of the tensions that their parents encounter on a daily basis.

Another from 2011 shows a British-Asian woman busy with her phone as an English Defence League demonstration goes on behind her in Luton. A third photo shows a sari shop in Leicester—which, were it not for the description and the insulated walls of the shop, could have been taken in Punjab.

And another shows a defiant Indian grandmother, cardigan buttoned up over her sari in a seemingly incongruous mix of styles that is intimately familiar to those of us who migrated from the subcontinent to the U.K., demonstrating against racist violence in Southall.

“These images are often the most powerful ones,” says Anand. “They’re very striking in their simplicity.”

Defining moments

The Migration Museum, temporarily housed in Lambeth, plans to build on the success of the 100 images to continue to show how migration has changed the U.K.

“There is an even greater call now for more depth and interest in this,” says Henderson. “The next exhibit we have in mind is showing seven crucial moments of immigration—and emigration—that changed Britain and contributed culturally to it.”

“One of those moments will be focusing on the arrival of East India Company ships,” adds Anand. “The Empire plays a significant role in who migrated here, and why.”

Alexander Betts, Director, Humanitarian Innovation Project, at the Refugee Studies Centre in the University of Oxford, once wrote that human migration is likely to “become the defining issue of the 21st century.”

As Britain begins to deal with the ramifications of pulling out of the European Union, a decision that was significantly motivated by a desire to control its borders, the Migration Museum Project is an important reminder of not only what migrants have contributed, but also how they will continue to change the country in ways big and small.

It couldn’t have come at a better time.

The London-based freelance journalist writes on art, politics and society.

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 3:23:50 pm |