I recently was invited to an intriguing exhibition in London’s trendy Shoreditch area, renowned the world over for its wonderful street art over the last two decades or so. Although much remains, to the delight of tourists and others, it’s currently in the grip of gentrification that is affecting so much of the capital and rents have rocketed so that impoverished street artists can no longer afford to live there. One of the few remaining is Stik, so named because of his simple yet evocative stick figures, and he’s just produced a large new work high on a wall near Old Street station. He has paid his landlord rent in canvasses for many years (probably a shrewd investment on the landlord’s part), but who knows how much longer this may last.
Anyway, I made my way past the trendy bars, cafes and restaurants to the Jealous East Gallery where an ethical online money transfer company, Azimo, were exhibiting a specially commissioned work of art alongside four large black and white photos. The title of the exhibition and the main painting: “Can a work of art define the word ‘migrant’” set about tackling the centuries-old problem – that of the negativity surrounding migration, whether it be for political, economic or other reasons. In a different corner of the arts world, Richard Bean’s 2009 controversial immigrant satire at the National Theatre tackled the same issue, which doubtless will surface again and again.
The remarkable painting by Eleanor Barreau is an imagined interpretation of seven famous migrants in a wooden boat surrounded by iceberg tips. The boat itself evokes the current daily tragedies of Africans fleeing their continent and attempting to start a new life in Europe. The migrants are an interesting choice, particularly as it’s questionable whether they should be associated with the word. I ask myself is this because they are all, in their way, famous, or even celebrities? They are Lionel Messi, the footballer who left Argentina as a 14-year-old to join FC Barcelona; Marie Sklodowska, who emigrated from Poland to Paris when she was 24, then married Pierre Curie and discovered polonium and radium; Mo Farah, a devout Muslim who came to London aged 8 as a refugee and who has become a sporting hero; Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for 21 years where he was a lawyer and civil rights activist; global superstar Rihanna, who moved to the USA from Barbados to further her career; Angela Merkel, born in East Germany under the communist regime and who then found herself a citizen in the united Germany; and finally Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, not a migrant himself, but like so many US citizens the son of migrants, in his case, Syrians.
The young people present at the exhibition, including the founders of Azimo who set up the company because they were appalled at the way traditional money transfer companies were charging such high fees to cash-poor people sending money back to their families, and the artist herself, were passionate about their cause. They were further inflamed by the current spate of racist attacks on migrants living in Britain following the Brexit vote, and were really committed to finding a way to make a difference. Perhaps one small painting won’t change attitudes or the world, but I had to applaud them for their commitment to what seems at times a problem with no solution in sight. And perhaps we should live in hope that from this, and other, little acorns, mighty oaks will grow.
Jeannette Nelson, Arts critic with special interest in theatre