The Student
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Review
‘Art has No Country’ British Museum events
by Ash Tomkins, 30/05/21

Is a flower political because you drew it?

How can an object as simple as a flower become political? That’s the question posed to Iranian artist Adsoon and Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi, in their personal reflections on contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa. On March 18th, the British Museum hosted an online Zoom event discussing – “art has no country” to accompany its upcoming exhibition; Reflections: Contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa.

This open discussion was introduced by exhibition curator Venetia Porter, run by Jo Glanville, joined by Almir Koldzic director of counterpoint arts – an organisation which supports migrant and refugee artists. The conversation with Iranian artist Afsoon and Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi – opens the floor to discussing the impact of homeland, conflict, and nostalgia in their art practices. Concerning the artists own experiences with displacement, migration and exile; this conference allowed both artists to share their ideas of homeland. We are implored to ask; what is the impact of displacement, migration and exile on artists who have been forced to leave their homes, or who have chosen to make their lives in another country?

The British Museum, notorious for holding colonial conquests and its refusals to repatriate objects, including the much-debated Elgin marbles – needless to say has a questionable history. From colonial physician and founder Sir Hans Sloane, the history of the acquisition of many of its prized artefacts remains a heavy subject. 

These discussions occurring within this institution can display several issues – firstly superficially the British museum appears to be ‘putting in the work.’ However conversations about colonialism and implications have very different effects in legitimately decolonizing art history. Conferences don’t do enough to actually support BAME artists or to impact art history, as discussed in the Q&A while ‘art has no country’, Afsoon tells us that, ‘Iran lives inside me. I create and re-create it through my work.’ Showing the legitimate problems provoked by this title, if art has no country; I wonder how can the institution be labelled the “British” museum? Moreover, the conference title insinuates that cultural conquests belong internationally – reiterating the argument against repatriation of artefacts. 

Can you look at work that tackles refugee crises and migrants and ignore its geographic origins? Especially when its geographic origins are intertwined with political and cultural turmoil? The conversations regarded the trauma associated with exile, and how it has been able to manifest in creative spaces, acknowledging that there is a multiplicity and individuality in each individuals experience, which is represented by artists ‘eccentric angles of vision’ 

Exploring these discussions with artists and supporting organisations involvement with refugees and migrants is immensely important for artistic institutions to contribute to decolonise art history, giving spaces to these artists to flourish and tell their stories. However, uncomfortable truths of the British Museum must continue to be debated, and the message of this exhibition must be amplified to remove power from colonialist narratives.  

Image by Huda Lufti- Al-Sitt and Her Sunglasses
Image Courtesy of the British Museum