Three Brilliant Exhibitions Celebrate Britain's Diversity At Somerset House.

Get Up Stand Up Now, Somerset House ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 36 months ago

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Three Brilliant Exhibitions Celebrate Britain's Diversity At Somerset House. Get Up Stand Up Now, Somerset House 4
A fashion shoot in Brixton market. Copyright Armet Francis.

A clenched fist in a black power salute emerges from a dainty quintessentially English teacup, complete with gold trimmings.

It's a hugely powerful statement referencing that the history of people in England sipping on sweetened tea, is intertwined with that of black slaves working on sugar plantations. The work is by artist Richard Rawlins and it leaves me reeling, as if that fist has popped out of the work and caught me on the chin.

It's only the first room and the political strength of Get Up, Stand Up Now is overwhelming. The exhibition tackles how black creative pioneers have shaped the UK over the last 50 years. Britain is what it is today because of its diverse communities and this exhibition doesn't pull its punches in making the audience aware of it.

An immensely powerful work by Richard Rawlins. Copyright the artist.

Nearby we see a soldier from the West Indies Regiment replaced with a white outline in a drawing by Barbara Walker. Until recently I didn't learn about the contribution of black soldiers in both world wars — I went to school in the 90s, as a child of Indian origin, and came out thinking that there were only ever white soldiers on both sides.

It's not just big political statements as we get warm human stories bringing a personal touch to the show. Two women and a girl emerge with their luggage from King's Cross station in a black and white photograph. The image begs the question 'where have they come from?'. It's a mundane activity that thousands of people do every day but it's so relatable — we've all been there, stepping out of a station or airport in a foreign country and stopping to get a sense of the place and our bearings.

Contemporary art features heavily in the show. Copyright Benji Reid.

There is a huge amount of stuff crammed into this show bursting with photography, contemporary art and historical objects — it's rather fitting that a show about diversity is filled with such a diverse array of items. Normally I'm put off by a cluttered hang, but it works here because the message people should be taking away is that you can't emphasise enough how much black culture has contributed to British society today — here's plenty of proof.

Spiderman leaps into action with a diverse background audience — do we see this in Hollywood?. Copyright Hetain Patel.

In an adjacent wing of Somerset House a free exhibition of photographs taken by first and second generation immigrants hooks on to a similar theme of celebrating diversity. The highlight is the slow motion video of artist Hetain Patel jumping in front of his extended family in a Spider-man costume. It's mesmerising and tongue-in-cheek, making the important point that in big budget movies we should be paying attention to the diversity of the extras in each scene as well as the leads

Across the courtyard the students of The Courtauld Institute have put together an art exhibition on identity that slots in neatly to the wider theme of its two neighbouring shows. It includes moving works such as Donald Rodney photographing a house made from his own skin to highlight his battle with sickle cell anaemia and a rather playful photograph of the Jane Austen Society who dress up in period costume and host meet ups.

Donald Rodney's house made from his own skin. Copyright the artist.

With these three exhibitions you could easily spend all day at Somerset House and come out with eyes opened to issues surrounding diversity. I certainly did. That has to be the strongest measure of the success for these shows.

Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black creative pioneers is on at Somerset House, West Wing galleries from 12 June to 15 September. Tickets are £12.75 for adults.
Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain is on at Somerset House, Terrace Rooms (South Wing) from 12 June to 8 September. Entrance is free.
Generations: Connecting across time and place is on at Somerset House, East Wing from 8 June to 4 July. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 11 June 2019