Review
Art
Culture
Identity
6 min read

How the incomer’s eye sees identity

Curating an exhibition for a re-invigorated art gallery gave Jonathan Evens the chance to highlight synergies between ancient texts and current issues.

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell and Area Dean of Basildon. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes regularly on the visual arts and The Arts more generally.

A painting depicts a round table in a room. Those sitting around it rise up as a Christ figure enters.
Horace Brodzky, Supper at Emmaus.
Ben Uri Gallery and Museum.

Ben Uri was founded in 1915 in London’s Whitechapel and was named after Bezalel Ben Uri, the craftsman who designed and built the Ark of the Covenant.  

Originally it was an art venue for Jewish immigrant artists who were unable to gain access to mainstream art societies at that time. Today it has been reimagined and relaunched, becoming an expansive digital platform designed to be the first stop for information on Jewish, refugee and immigrant artists, designers, dealers and scholars who have made significant contributions to the rich and diverse British cultural mosaic.  

In 2023, I curated an online exhibition for Ben Uri exploring migration themes in Biblical images drawn from their Collection.  

Themes of identity and migration feature significantly in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and images from these Bibles are a substantive element of the Ben Uri Collection. As a result, the exhibition that I curated, Exodus & Exile: Migration Themes in Biblical Images, includes a range of Biblical images from the Collection. This is in order to explore migration themes through consideration of the images, the Bible passages which inspired them and the relationship between the two. The images are presented broadly in the order that the stories on which they are based appear in either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. 

The combination of images and texts I selected from the Ben Uri Collection enabled a range of different reflections, relationships and disjunctions to be explored. These include the aesthetic, anthropological, devotional, historical, sociological and theological. The result is that significant synergies can be found between the ancient texts and current issues. In this way, stories and images which may, at first, appear to be describing or defining specific religious doctrines can be seen to take on a shared applicability by exploring or revealing the challenges and changes bound up in the age-old experience of migration. This was important in writing for an audience including people of all faiths and none, and in writing for an organisation which seeks to surpass ethnic, cultural and religious obstacles to engagement within the arts sector. 

“Most of what we’d today call migration is in the Bible, and it’s through migration, not in spite of it, that revelation occurs.” 

Sam Wells

Engaging in a dialogue between images and texts and with an audience made up of people of all faiths and none, can be revelatory for all involved, particularly those doing the writing. In an essay related to the exhibition, about which I will say more shortly, I discuss the impact of émigré artists, many of whom were Jewish, who contributed artworks that greatly enriched British culture and churches. Another example of someone impacted by the insights of those from another faith community is that of Lord Maurice Glasman, who has written of the part played by Catholic social thought in restructuring his politics, ethics and orientation of thought. He writes that: “It established the Common Good – a negotiated settlement between estranged interests – as the ultimate end of politics. It is Catholic social thought that has guided me through the 2008 crash, Brexit and now the coronavirus. It has been my inspiration and I will be eternally grateful to Catholics and the Church. It was a very generous gift. In the darkest moments, it lights the way.” 

Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, argues that the Bible itself is founded on six journeys, all of which have a bearing on themes of migration: “Jacob and his entourage migrate to Egypt in the midst of famine. This is an economic migration, but really it’s a journey of survival. Moses and the children of Israel migrate from Egypt to the Promised Land. They leave as refugees to flee slavery. They take 40 years to reach their destination, and, when they get there, they face a very hostile environment indeed. Judah loses a battle and is displaced 500 miles to Babylon. There, as Daniel shows, exiles play a vibrant role in public life, and bring unique qualities, represented by the ability to interpret dreams. Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. He’s living during the occupation by an invading power, Rome. Finally, Paul migrates from Jerusalem to Rome. He’s searching for legal protection in an empire where citizenship transcends geography.” His conclusion is that “most of what we’d today call migration is in the Bible, and it’s through migration, not in spite of it, that revelation occurs”. As a result, we don’t get Judaism or Christianity without migration. 

Many of these artists were part of a remarkable generation of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe who contributed artworks that greatly enriched British culture and churches. 

Wells’ approach is one that I adopted in exploring migration themes through Biblical images in the Ben Uri Collection and many of the journeys he mentions feature in the exhibition images. The images I chose, begin with an L. Michèle Franklin watercolour of Adam and Eve. In her image they are naked with heads in hands, lamenting their loss, as they leave Eden. This is an archetypal image of forced migration, with those who have become migrants mourning the loss of the home they loved. The creation stories contained in the Bible quickly lead to a founding act of exile as Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. One reading of this story suggests that we are all migrants, outside of a truly harmonious relationship with the world we inhabit but looking to return to our harmonious origins. 

The exhibition ends with Horace Brodzky’s 'Supper at Emmaus', an image which comes at the end of a journey and depicts the moment of realisation that the one who had been lost and mourned had in fact been with the travellers throughout their journey. As a result, the realisation comes that what we seek may be with us on the journey or Exodus we undertake, rather than awaiting us at the end. This realisation results in a new journey for the exiles and a return to their people and purpose.  

In between come stories of migration in the lives and experiences of the artists who created the images included in the exhibition, with aspects of those stories becoming entwined with the Biblical narratives depicted. Attention is drawn to René Girard’s mimetic theory, whereby imitation of one another gives rise to rivalries and violent conflicts that are then temporarily solved by scapegoating others. Some artists of Jewish origin included in the Collection addressed their experience of persecution through crucifixion imagery and, thereby, played their part in exposing and subverting this scapegoating mechanism.  

Many of these artists were part of a remarkable generation of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe who contributed artworks that greatly enriched British culture and churches. After the Second World War, there was an almost unprecedented expansion of the number of church buildings containing works of art, as churches were repaired or built with new work installed in them. This was a time of impassioned artistic activity, in which the catalyst for the Church was, to a significant extent, émigré artists, many of whom were Jewish. I explore the contribution made by this group of artists in a related essay called Debt Owed to Jewish Refugee Art which is also available through Ben Uri Online.  

Will Hutton, writing in The Guardian in 2015, noted that refugees “are, as migration specialist Ian Goldin characterises them, ‘exceptional people’”. He continued: “Over centuries, as [Goldin] painstakingly details, it has been immigrants and refugees who have been part of the alchemy of any country’s success: they are driven, hungry and talented and add to the pool of entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers. The hundreds of thousands today who have trekked across continents and dangerous seas are by any standards unusually driven. They are also, as Angela Merkel says, fellow human beings. To receive them well is not only in our interests, it is fundamental to an idea of what it means to be human.” The history of émigré artists in the twentieth century, and the part of that story I explore in this essay and exhibition, reiterates and demonstrates the continuing relevance and significance of that message.  

In relation to the story told in my essay, it is a story in which the Church is at the heart of welcome and hospitality, combined with awareness of the immense contribution that refugees make to the culture and economy of their host countries. Our current lack of appreciation for that story, these artists, and their works, is, perhaps, symptomatic of the place in which our nation’s conversation about immigration is currently stuck. My hope is that this exhibition and essay can play a small part in changing that situation. 

 

View the Exodus & Exile: Migration Themes in Biblical Images exhibition.

 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.