Histories in the Age of Confusion

 

Wendy Elia’s Histories in the Age of Confusion is a series of life-size portraits of women tied to the artist through friendship or familial connections. These paintings, and the smaller accompanying prints, explore issues of genetics, ethnicity, sexual politics, and what it means to be British at this juncture in the twenty-first century. But at the series’ heart lies the figure of the migrant.

 

To talk of Britishness is to already invoke the notion of migration. Arguably, it is unthinkable to consider the development of British art without taking into account the influence of imported talent: Holbein at the court of Henry VIII;  Rubens, Artemesia and Orazio Gentileschi at the court of Charles I; Henry Fuseli, Angelica Kauffmann, and others at the Royal Academy… Little wonder that Hogarth, that most English of painters, made frequent (if scathing) references to his audience’s appetite for foreigners. In the nineteenth century, American artists such as John Singer Sargent would again impact on the art scene in Britain. Despite this influx of artist-migrants, the experience of migration itself has not been broadly examined in visual art. When it was referenced at all, it was problematised; G.F. Watts, for instance, made paintings about the plight of the Irish in the wake of the potato famines. It took a generation of British-born children of immigrants - artists like Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper - to re-define British identity in their image in the 1980s. Elia has her own story – her mother was British, her father Greek Cypriot – and this history has pervaded her paintings. (There is a broken plate in her 2011 self-portrait I Could Have Been A Contender, a tongue-in-cheek reference to her Greek heritage). However this is the first of her series to undertake a sustained investigation into migration.

 

Britain’s solution to a post-war labour shortage was to invite a limited number of workers from the Caribbean. The arrival in 1948 of this ‘Wind Rush Generation,’ named after the vessel in which they sailed, is often perceived as the beginnings of mass immigration. It was subsequently followed by a ‘wave’ of immigration from the Indian-subcontinent in 1950-70, of male agricultural workers from Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, and so on. It is easy to underestimate the difficulties of some of those journeys. Not so much the physical hardships of overseas travel but the other obstacles. The language barrier. The daily racism. Those markers of difference that ensured immigrants were not immediately ‘integrated’ into their host country: some had to report to the Home Office on a regular basis; many were excluded from status professions. Then there was the potential isolation from the communities in their countries of origin. There was no Skype, no email. Long distance telephone calls were expensive, flights prohibitively so. Who can count how many familial or romantic relationships disintegrated ever so slowly in the accumulation of months and years between visits home? If those visits were even feasible. If there was a ‘home’ to go back to. Which clearly wasn’t the case with political refugees.

 

But these constructs (home versus not-home) are just as likely to be meaningless for a second and third generation – those born in Britain to immigrant families. It is these women who feature in Elia’s portraits in Histories in the Age of Confusion. Whilst the testimonies of these young women’s ancestors (and others like them) have since been collected or even recounted as fiction, there is nevertheless a need to document them visually.

 

Elia maps out their familial connections pictorially. In Lola Chaudhuri we see a table with a statue of a  Hindu god and a photograph of Herbert John Search, her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, who was a Corporal in the Horse Artillery Brigade with the Essex Regiment; on the wall, a photo of her grandparents with her father as a child.

 

By viewing this second or third generation in the context of their relatives’ migrant histories, the paintings suggest that the women’s relationships with Britain, with Britishness, may be more straightforward than those of their parents or grandparents. The portraits also invite us to query what is inherited and what is learned. In Grace Lau, for instance, the resemblance between the subject and her grandmother is more apparent than that between her and her mother. In Aisha Jacobs, her African grandmother –  depicted here in the photograph on the wall, possibly not much older than Aisha is now, one foot on the radiator grille of a private coach, owning it, inevitably summoning the ghost of Rosa Parks who made a stand against racial segregation – seems to pass on her feisty optimism to Aisha’s mother, a famous actor. But differences are also made apparent through these intergenerational juxtapositions and these too might be legible within the broader narrative of social change and the postmodernist approach to identity that champions the fluid rather than the fixed. Aisha’s long, straight hair extensions contrast sharply with the exuberant Afro of her grandmother. Does Aisha identify with the latter’s struggle? Is it already too remote? (Here their past is literally a foreign country and, as L.P. Hartley says, “they do things differently there.") Or has Aisha adopted the survival strategy of the canny migrant – the capability to move when needed, to be flexible, to reinvent, to integrate (or to resist integration) – mirroring, like the mimic octopus, the characteristics of its opponents to avoid detection?

 

As these competing narratives (of past and present, real and imagined) are allowed to operate simultaneously within the same space, these histories indeed confuse and dislocate us. Yet Elia also anchors us, deploying the iconic red bus as a signifier of London. All of the solo portraits were painted in her studio and the view of St. George's Circus appears in several works. An historic site constructed in 1771 and now considered the South’s gateway to London, the circus’ roads radiate to the Thames’ major bridges: Waterloo, Blackfriars, Lambeth, Westminster… Aside from alluding to transit (the road, the bridge, the river beyond), its inclusion also hints at another link between Englishness and migration. St. George the martyr, after whom it is named, was a kind of migrant himself, adopted by crusaders as a symbol of Englishness and only made patron saint of England in 1415. An obelisk designed by Robert Mylne (1733-1811), the surveyor and architect of Blackfriars Bridge, marks the centre of the circus. Even it migrated though – it was re-located in 1905, only returning to its original home in the late 1990s. But the circus is now also known for the activity of guerilla gardeners, active there since 2005, who plant and care for lavender, rosemary, tulips, campanula and azaleas. This relationship between history as a grand narrative and the micro histories that infect a site is played out in the portraits’ presentation of immigrants' stories within the broader socio-political context of British history. One starting point for this history and Histories might reside in the portrait Madeleine Shrimpton, Elia's daughter. Her red hair, pale skin, Tudor dress, and imperious gaze invoke the spirit of Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen and, by implication, all the portraits of her including ‘The Ditchley Portrait’ by Flemish emigrant artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2 – 1636) which depicts her standing on a map of England. It acts as the marker for all the other works in the series, like a contemporary allegorical portrait of Clio, the muse of History.

 

Elia asked her models to bring something from their homes to appear alongside them in their portraits. The use of objects is a common conceit in Elia’s work where props function like Saints’ attributes, creating a kind of visual shorthand for character or narrative. This strategy enables sitters to take an active role in their own representation, giving them the opportunity to expose or obscure their histories. So in Grace Lau the renowned photographer is referenced through the old Hasselblad film camera on the table; while Peppi Knott presents herself as a musician, a Mariani Fratelli accordion at her feet. In this series, the objects act also as further testaments to migrations. Just as Venetian Renaissance mosque lamps or late Victorian ebonised furniture attested to intercultural pilferings, so Aisha Jacobs wears a gold chain with a star of David, highlighting Rastafarians' belief that the star was appropriated by the Jewish faith from the Rastafarian religion. Some of the objects have travelled in time and/or space, handed down between generations like the teddy bear in the portrait Lola Chaudhuri (her grandmother’s). We can trace the narrative in Grace Lau: her grandmother from rural China, her father a poet who came to the west to evade persecution in the wake of Mao’s cultural revolution. The calligraphy on the scroll is his, the poem an old Chinese one. On the floor, the beautiful silken puppet that mimics her posture, its leg slung over the antique Chinese chair’s. The departed leave behind empty spaces. Ask Mexican artist Alejandro Santiago who returned to Oaxaca after a period of self-exile in France to find his home a virtual ghost town, its inhabitants gone to find work in the States. The composition of Elia’s creates a series of voids - the camera’s circular lens, the space between Grace’s arms, the roundabout outside encircled by buses – that hint at such absences.

 

The objects in the series are painted in such a way that they acquire an exoticism emphasised by the high-key colour palette Elia deploys. In Peppi Knott, the saffron-yellow silk cushion counteracts the cool blues of her clothes. This exaggeration functions as a reminder that migrations are not always born out of pragmatism. It is seductive, this promise of elsewhere. Not just in the sense of Gauguin yearning for paradisal strangeness in Tahiti or of Velasquez in Italy painting (probably) his reclining nude (The ‘Rokeby’ Venus) away from the censure of the Spanish court, but of an indulgence of the imagination. Historically, even where artists did not physically travel to all the countries they depicted (Whistler, whose studio Henri Fantin-Latour compared to Nagasaki, may have slept in a Japanese bed and worn a Japanese kimono but he never actually visited Japan), they enabled their viewers to live out the fantasy of elsewhere. Never mind that their vision was skewed through Western colonialism (note the peculiar conflation of Japanese and Chinese culture in late nineteenth century art or the pale, red-haired European models Jean-Léon Gérome transported to exotic fantasy harems). Inevitably these seductions force the twenty-first century viewer to address the complex interplay of race, ethnicity, and imagination and how these affected perceptions of immigrants. (I might reference my own upbringing in suburban 1970s Surrey where it was assumed my Italian parents must run a pizza place, own an ice cream van, or belong to the Mafia.)  Grace Lau reveals her sense of humour by electing to pose with a fluffy, giant panda rug, a clichéd marker of Chineseness whose doleful eyes echo her own serious expression.

 

The spirit of another Queen also pervades the series: Queen Victoria. (Victoria’s Jubilee procession passed through St. George’s Circus in 1897.) Synonymous with empire and colonialism, the Victorian era was one in which foreignness was celebrated as spectacle. The Great Exhibition of 1851 sought to position Britain at the epicentre of global power whilst offering tantalising glimpses of exotica in its pavilions. Yet Histories in the Age of Confusion references the nineteenth century to ask also how immigrants may have perceived Britain. Lola Chaudhuri poses with her grandparents’ copy of Reverend Charles Kingsley’s novel The Water Babies, a text now considered riddled with racism, but that may have offered a notion of Englishness and otherness every bit as alluring as its Indian counterparts.

 

Yet all of these fictions threaten to undermine themselves. Look closely at the portrait of Madeleine and you will notice the stud walls barely held together, the peeling paint. And, her feet – bare and awkward, turned in, spots of grey dust under the big toes; toenails painted a glossy pillar-box red like a continuity error that went unnoticed in a period drama. The very chair that she sits on is disintegrating, patched up. In Aisha Jacobs the top right-hand corner of the window seems to peel away as if it is only a false backdrop; the antique Chinese chair that seemed so key to Grace’s heritage reappears, apparently decontextualised in Peppi Knott, suggesting that it is, after all, just a prop. On the floor in Aisha’s portrait: two pieces of masking tape in the shape of an ‘x’ – the artist’s signature like that of the illiterate, the artist trying, literally, to cohere, to make coherent, what threatens to fall apart.

 

Several of the models reappear in Elia's large scale group portrait Made in Britain which re-imagines “home” in the artist’s studio. (Indeed, the fact that the models are all either family or the daughters of Elia’s close friends implies she sees them as her extended family.) As in the individual portraits, the models are contextualised through family photographs which act as still lives but again the fictive quality of the space is re-emphasised through the juxtaposing of these photos, some of which are placed outside the frame of the mirror as if on a giant mantelpiece. Making, fabricating – these are acts of invention.

 

As a phrase, the work’s title Made in Britain is something of a cliché. Implying a manufacturer's label, its use here could be ironic: very little is made in Britain now. However, given the painting's references to families and lineage, this is also a jokey nod to where these young women were conceived. It could also be a reference to a 1982 British drama (directed by Alan Clarke) about racism and the working classes. The young women's parents or grandparents are not middle or upper class but their labour secured better futures for their children. The issue is alluded to via a pencil sketch on the floorboards: a group portrait of exclusive secret society the Bullingdon Club. A 200 year old institution which comprises Oxford University students, the club has become synonymous with privilege. Several members (David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne) currently hold key political positions in Britain.

 

Elia also references Constable's The Haywain (1821), a work that has come to stand for a quintessential Englishness. Whilst it is now often denigrated as chocolate box (Constable's surfaces appearing overworked beside Turner's vaporous-thin oils), there was a political dimension to The Haywain. Constable was describing a disappearing rural idyll, a countryside and way of living he feared spoilt by industrialisation. Affected perhaps by Marxist readings of Constable as the prosperous mill owner's son whose image of labour was already genteel,  Elia uses it as a sign of a mythical England, a fiction of the upper classes, far removed from the real-life hardships of the rural poor. Perhaps the biggest irony of all though is that in Constable's lifetime it was the French rather than the English who appreciated "stay at home" Constable and his technical innovations. It was the French Salon, not our Royal Academy, who awarded The Haywain a gold medal. It was Delacroix and the Impressionists who borrowed his coloured shadows.

 

Gender is also pertinent to Elia’s enquiry. The fact the models are all female is no accident. Inscribed in pencil on the room's floorboards is the faint image of Suffragette Emily Davison and the King's horse. Davison ran in front of George V's Anmer at the 1913 Derby to protest against women not having the vote. She was hit by the horse and never regained consciousness. Her skull fractured, she died from her injuries four days later in Epsom Cottage hospital.

 

The contemporary artist - like the medic - is supposed to be able to transcend borders. She participates almost seamlessly in international exhibitions, themselves ever more homogenous in character. Her practice may be valued for its foreignness yet is always reassuringly familiar. Yet the migrant can choose to play the interloper: Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura photographed himself in multiple roles, literally inserting himself into the Western art canon as Manet's Olympia and her maid, as Frida Kahlo, as Cindy Sherman. In Made in Britain Elia pictures herself in the large mirror behind her sitters. Her self-portrait references Velasquez's meta-painting Las Meninas but reinforces the role of woman as producer. Since this group portrait also contains the image of an earlier Elia portrait The Visit V (Mary), it reveals and perhaps respects Elia’s own heritage: Mary is her mother.

 

Made in Britain also reprises a familiar Elia motif: a reference to a JMW Turner painting. She positions his 1840 Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) on the staircase, in the same place as its ''cousin" - Elia's Turner-inspired sea painting Oil on Tent - in The Visit V (Mary). This creates a sense of continuity between the series, while also alluding to the sometimes risk-laden migrations of the girls' families and perhaps to the inevitable romanticism with which we treat the journey. As Robert Winder says in Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, “Immigration, indeed, might be a rather grandiose, unequivocal word for what is often a diffident decision, full of hesitations and reluctant compromises.” (2004: 88). Elia uses Turner’s work to remind us of Britain's pivotal role in the slave trade and how multiculturalism, evidenced in the young women of Made in Britain, is its only positive legacy.

 

Dr. Marie-Anne Mancio 2013 ©

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