How migration has affected British art seems an area far too big to be covered by one exhibition. And it is. The attempt to "offer a unique perspective on the history of British art, charting how it has been shaped by successive waves if migration" by the Migrations exhibition at Tate Britain is not altogether a successful one. Under this collection the works of some great artists are brought together. James Abbot Whistler, John Singer Sargent, David Medalla and Donald Rodney are among those to be found in this collection of external influence upon British art. Here we find the works of Flemish Baroque painters presented alongside that of victims of the postcolonial diaspora supposedly united under the banner of ‘migrants.’ But what these artists have in common, their own reasons for coming to Britain, and the influences upon their work are all areas barley touched upon by this collection.
Whilst there are some magnificent pieces to be found here, a study for John Singer Sargent’s famous Madame X among them, each artist represented is not only represented by a minimal number of works but also, the connection of each to the theme of migration often seems tenuous at best. We can hardly consider the influences and effects of British born Jewish artists to be the same, or even comparable, to members of groups such as the Black Audio Film Collective. And yet this is the very connection this exhibition seeks to make.
A collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings, lacking in substance, finally gives way to several rooms of films, again supposedly united under the banner of migration. Travelling from the paintings of James Whistler to these films, any remaining shred of a connection between the artists housed here is lost and you may well be compelled to head straight towards the exit.
The powerful imagery of the likes of Keith Piper seems diluted when presented alongside artist to which only the most manufactured connection can be made. Although the Migrations exhibition brings together some truly great artists, it fails to address some of the most fundamental principles of their work in favor of creating a questionable association between them. Each artist housed here, when considered alone, certainly has much to bring to the table, but, when forced together under this aprticular theme, all of their works appear to suffer.
Toby Austin Locke
Migrations is at Tate Britain until August 12th.