WORDS + IMAGES BY SARA SHAMSAVARI
“Britain Retold- A Portrait of London” is a project I conceived in 2009, completed in 2012 and has been exhibiting in various forms ever since. The series consists of intimate portraits that incorporate the symbolism of the union flag juxtaposed with statements, forming a strategy by which we can explore and challenge the viewer’s past and current interpretations of what it is to be British. In the creation of this project it was my hope to provide a platform that allows the multi communities in London to begin redefining what it means to be British, moving toward being wholly inclusive and allowing new associations to exist alongside tradition. In the aftermath of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, it feels appropriate time to revisit “Britain Retold” and the values it represents.
Unity in diversity is a concept that I am deeply committed to. The embrace of our differences and the synergy that happens when opposites come together catalyse our growth and make us greater, stronger and more beautiful than we could hope to be alone. One measure of progress within a country or city is it’s level of diversity, cultural and otherwise . I consider myself a world citizen, but there is no denying that London- the city that raised me- has been a source of deep inspiration. Fifty percent of Britain’s ‘minority’ ethnic communities live in London and some three hundred languages are spoken here. Despite the conflicts and challenges presented by this, I believe it is this diversity that makes London and the UK one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the world. I also believe it’s citizens are among the most socially conscious and sophisticated in the world as our diversity regularly provides opportunities to grow, adapt, evolve, expand and advance our perspectives.
My childhood however was a much bleaker time - growing up in the 80s and 90s when London could not boast the cultural diversity that it does today, the national flag had been adopted by the BNP and National Front as an emblem evoking fear in anyone in the ‘minority’ particularly those considered Black or foreign. Judging by Britain’s vote to leave and the assassination of MP Jo Cox we could be heading in that direction again. A Britain controlled by fear, fear of the ‘other’, as though the ‘other’ were so different from ourselves.
Whether we are in Britain as a result of invasion, slavery, asylum or simply because we are seeking new opportunity there is no denying the rich cultural and economic contributions of Britain’s diverse communities. Rather than recognising or celebrating these contributions as a valuable aspect of our national identity ‘immigrants ‘and ‘foreigners’ are being constantly spoken about with hostility and aggression as though they are objects and not human beings. Sadly this has been amplified by the recent referendum.
Within my work I seek to explore the concept of identity and to reflect on the experiences of those around me as they mirror my own. I’m inspired by transformation and strive to celebrate an overlooked and enduring beauty that shines in the face of the conflict often experienced by individuals and communities that have been displaced. In the conception and realisation of Britain Retold, it was my endeavour to create a platform where the multi communities of London could be seen and heard and begin redefining their concept of Britishness. Including the British flag within each image gave me the opportunity to challenge my own negative childhood associations and re-invent them within a new, inclusive and beautiful context.
Ironically “ Britain Retold- a Portrait of London’ debuted at City Hall in 2010/11 when Boris Johnson was Mayor. With the Olympics ahead there was a sense of unity and the potential for inclusion and cohesion. Five years on it feels very different, like a regression. The union flag is once again being used by far right nationalists, as it was when I was a child, to create fear and to exclude the ‘other’ and we are no longer part of the EU. So today, ‘Britain Retold’ is more relevant than ever. In the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave , my commitment to creating work that seeks to counter prejudice and division is even stronger. Along with the deep disappointment, even heartbreak at Britain’s choice, I still hold the ideal of unity in diversity. History has taught us that in the progress of every ideal there have always been victories and setbacks. We are a lot closer and more connected than we may imagine, and perhaps if we took a deeper look we would realise the ‘other’ is ‘us’.