A review of Mixed Rage: Unapologetically Other (15 Apr – 14 Aug 2022) & Bristol Archives: Empire Through the Lens (9 Jul – 11 Sep 2022) at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC)
I’m definitely not the only person to have feelings about the Commonwealth games, not to mention the host of arts events and exhibitions that found funding through the games (many of which have not included local artists and producers). Though an analysis of this is not the purpose of this review, it is, in a way, unavoidable. The uneasiness around the games, the purpose or function of art as it relates to something as controversial as the Commonwealth, and the grit-your-teeth-and-get-on-with-it nature of finding money to fund arts in a regional centre like Birmingham, all impacted my experience of Mixed Rage: Unapologetically Other, a group exhibition curated by talented curator Dominique Nok.
The three exhibitions currently showing at the MAC are all presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival. In the main exhibition space on the ground floor is the Empire Through the Lens exhibition, an exhibition that had previously been on show several years prior at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition was supplemented with some new art pieces by Carla Busuttil, Faisal Hussain and Mahtab Hussain. Despite this, I’m afraid to say that this recycling felt inappropriate: why would the MAC need to air lift an exhibition in wholesale like this? We have artists, curators and creatives who could have created something new and, more importantly, something Birmingham specific. It felt tokenistic and, frankly, tired. It comes across as decolonial-washing: a “decolonial” exhibition designed to do away with the legitimate issues many of us have about the Commonwealth games coming to Birmingham. To get any kind of critical analysis, one will need to pop on the 50 into town and check out mixed-heritage artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s incredible posters, which rightly emphasise the colonial roots of the Commonwealth and question whether we really are ‘one family’, as president of the games, Dame Louise Martins, has stated.
And then, just down the corridor past the cinema, you’ll find Unapologetically Other, a far smaller exhibition than Empire Through the Lens and a much more personal and intimate affair. It features works by Mixed Rage Collective: Sherrie Edgar, Sevonah Golabi, Sina Leasuasu, Niall Singh and Jane Thakoordin. The works give voice to a variety of topics, as the exhibition material relates: ‘the effect of “othering”, lack of representation, daily micro-aggressions and displacement felt by people of mixed heritage, interweaving the highly political and colonial backdrop into which they were born, as well as celebrating their mixed cultures and heritage’.
Multiplicity is definitely at the foreground of the exhibition, which is multimedia and dives into many different ideas and emotions. Sherrie Edgar’s film Being Mixed (2022) explores various mixed experiences, such as presenting as white, racism, proximity to whiteness, as well as embracing difference. Niall Singh’s work reflects on class and Britishness in his timely pieces of poetry and collages. Sevonah Golabi’s photographic prints and personal items are humorous and enjoyably knowing. Both Golabi’s work and the work of Leasuasu think through the family, the body, and everyday items to explore shame and belonging.
In their interviews for Mixed Messages Newsletter, artists Niall Singh and Sherrie Edgar provide very different answers to the question of how they would sum up their experience of being mixed. Edgar describes a story of acceptance in adulthood; Singh uses the word adversity. I think holding on to how painful being mixed has been for some of us — and less so for others! — is a way of thinking about our community. Some of us have been harshly rejected by our own families, for instance; others have experienced their difference as a celebration against the racism outside their homes. It’s important to hold on to and take care of those differences. Let’s acknowledge that we are different — and that we are going to disagree! (As an example, one of the artists touches on political blackness, which I have issues with as it erases anti-Blackness in communities of colour.)
Empire and colonialism feature strongly and, again, had me comparing Unapologetically to the exhibition next door. What is it like to experience different histories in one household? In one body? Accounts of racism are often reduced to a storyline of an outside and an inside. Being mixed derails that account by challenging the idea of an inside or outside: many of us contain two, three or four differing narratives in our bodies and families. As one of the artists notes, being mixed in the UK was relatively rare a few decades ago whereas now, in Birmingham, it is the largest population category. And yet representation is still hugely lacking. It’s almost as though we’re constantly in an argument with reality.
I’d be curious to know more from artists of mixed heritage about this argument with reality. I’d like to parse through the nuances of coming from families like ours: it’s never just outright rejection or blissful belonging. Yet we are so often used as mascots — as either a way of condemning or celebrating multiculturalism. Throughout the exhibition, I felt two impulses at work: one which pushes forwards representation and another impulse which demands for something more, a political reckoning. There are big and complex ideas and big emotions here (Unapologetic! Rage!) confined in quite a small space. So I see this exhibition as the beginning of something great and deserving of more space to explore the future we want to create, as well as the nuances of being of mixed heritage.
Luckily, I am writing at a moment where art around mixed heritage has pretty much exploded! I was recently interviewed by the lovely Nozomi for her Mixed Feelings Dialogue project (see a trailer here), Isabella Silvers’ in-depth interviews at Mixed Messages Newsletter provide us with new perspectives on a weekly basis, and countless books and poetry collections are being published at the moment, all offering space between pages to explore mixed-heritage experiences. And, of course, there’s Middleground, which continues to be a welcoming home to the words and images of mixed-heritage creatives! So, in a way, my desire is being fulfilled already. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing what artists and collectives like Mixed Rage produce next.