This thought-provoking exhibition is taken from the Ben Uri art gallery in London, which was established in 1915 to encourage Jewish artists whose work was not publicly accepted at the time.
The exhibition explores the themes of migration and fleeing from oppression predominantly as a Jewish artist. It boasts pieces from Marc Chagall and the Whitechapel boys (a group of Jewish artists who contributed to British modernism and all were affected by the war), and contemporary performance artists such as Guter Ates.
Ates examines the concept of bringing your ‘home’ with you as a refugee, along with your cultural baggage and your memories; there are some stills of her performance which shows the artist carrying her ‘home’ on her back with a veil of fabric arranged in abstract folds, designed to mimic railway arches, thus emphasising the importance of trains for a refugee. Another 21st century artist who describes modern life as a refugee is Behjat Omer Abdulla, whose gigantic portraits of immigrants’ momentalise people who would otherwise be invisible in western society. Tragically, one of his muses was refused asylum in the UK and then later deported to Iraq where he was shot dead; Abdulla sketched the portrait after his death from his photo ID.
Joseph Herman was a Polish Jewish painter who fled Warsaw in 1938, and his painting Refugees depicts a Jewish refugee family fleeing during WW2 where the refugees’ fate is symbolised by the cat above the family. The spires in the painting allude to the Polish villages, and reveal a lost Warsaw of his youth.
Similarly, Chana Kowlaska explores the nostalgia of the pre-war Jewish shtetels (small Jewish villages) with her naïve style she portrays aspects of modern life such as telegraph poles and rubbish bins, thus linking the two contrasting worlds.
This exhibition was rather emotional, and given our current headlines, is extremely relevant to our troubling relationship with refugees currently in Britain. I would recommend it to all.