While politicians are making emotive statements about immigration in the Brexit debate, artists are reminding us that immigration is not just about numbers, it is about people, human beings, who may have sacrificed everything to seek a better life and who often have made – and continue to make – an immense contribution to British culture, sport, enterprise and innovation and to the shaping of British society.
Over history, there has always been migration. 21st-century Britain has been shaped by immigration from the times of the Vikings, and the Normans. Often war has played a part, whether through invasion or through displacement such as during and after the First and Second World Wars and in countries like Syria today. In addition, migrants have sought new countries and new opportunities for economic, environmental, social, family or political reasons.
The entrance hall of Turner Contemporary in Margate is lined with shelves with thousands of books, covered in a colourful Batik fabric initially produced by the Dutch for trade in Indonesia and later used in West Africa as a sign of African identity and independence, with book-spines listing the names of many first or second generation immigrants who have enriched British society, including the painters Hans Holbein the Younger (born in Germany) and Francis Bacon (born in Ireland), Helen Mirren the actress, (whose father was Russian), the architect Zaha Hadid (born in Baghdad), philosopher and writer Alain de Botton (born in Switzerland), the dancer Akran Khan (whose parents are from Bangladesh), Albert Roux the chef (born in France) and Carlos Acosta the ballet dancer (born in Cuba), to name just a few. The books are balanced with names of prominent figures people who have opposed immigration.
Yinka Shonibare’s installation “British Library” is supported by a website which lists a huge roll-call of such immigrants plus provides video and other material to inform the debate.
A short walk away, in the old town of Margate, the reality of life for refugees in Calais “gateway of hope and fear” has been recorded by the young photographer Melissa Arras in “El Dorado” at the Vortigen Gallery, her photographs illustrating how refugees seek to maintain a dignified and civilised life within difficult circumstances of a refugee camp which is so near to Margate – only 50 miles across the English Channel, but so far away.
These two artists add to other work that on show across Europe including the German photographer Tobias Zielony, one of the finalists in this year’s Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize, with his photographs of African refugee activists in Germany and “At the Gates of Paradise”, which brings together of migrants and five photographers on exhibition at the Conde Duque in Madrid.
Artists are showing they can provide a more balanced debate than many politicians, without making judgement.