Caragh Medlicott reviews Ffotogallery’s newest exhibition, Invisible Britain – This Separated Isle, a series of photographic portraits curated by Paul Sng.
On the island of modern Britain, few topics are as likely to spark contention as the notion of “Britishness” itself. Inevitably, Brexit remains the dominant schism felt across this triad of nations, yet fault lines are also drawn across everything from class to politics to age and so on ad infinitum. Matters of national identity – in every shade from pride to shame – are the thorny subject matter of ‘Invisible Britain – This Separated Isle’. A series of photographic portraits curated by Paul Sng and based on the book of the same name, the exhibition is a litmus test of a wide variety of attitudes and ideals as they are felt across this fissile isle. In an era of political drama, and with emotions at a continuous high, ‘Invisible Britain’ makes space for both the individual voice and a showcase of diverse opinions via its selected portraits currently on display at Ffotogallery.
Taken as a whole, this exhibition aims for eclecticism via the identity and viewpoints of its subjects. This it achieves with ease. Yet, it is, in fact, the conviction of each portrait in its own right which lends ‘Invisible Britain’ real poignancy. A range of participating photographers necessarily add to the diversity of styles, and yet there is something in the steeliness of each subject – regardless of composition – which threads together the story of a Britain which might indeed be divided, but certainly isn’t short on emotion. Each portrait is completed with a small quote from the photographed individual (these condensed from the longer narrative stories included in the book) forming mission statements of sorts. These, in many ways, agitate the portraits – forcing contrasting interpretations and highlighting new details. An elderly man (Nathan Field photographed by Fiona Yaron-Field), arms crossed, propped contentedly against some cushions becomes weary looking in the context of his quotation stating that he’s “not optimistic anymore”. In another, a woman (Joy Itumi photographed by Mario W. Ihieme) suns her face from a plastic chair in a leafless garden – her frustration at being “intentionally marginalised” turns a scene of relaxation into one of fleeting respite.
As fulsome as ‘Invisible Britain’ manages to be within a finite number of portraits, its selection does also give away a hint of bias – one which happily slants towards the everyday, and towards the voiceless. There are naturally the views, places, and debates we’d expect of modern Britain (righteous adolescents; London backdrops; Brexit tensions), yet room is made, too, for the lives lived between the extremes of political tribalism and caricatured divisions. And it’s not only the quotes that deepen these messages, but the portraits themselves – most of which are torn between the stillness of the subject and their vividly spry backgrounds. With deep, textured colour and a variety of both rural and urban landscapes there is a tactility to the way each individual belongs to (or is alienated from) their surroundings. The conceptual details of nationhood are, naturally, too big to unpick here, but Sng’s curation does also speak to one important duality: that of the land and the people who inhabit it. Spaced infrequently between the portraits are hushed shots of the sea. A grey tide laps at concrete; two unoccupied benches sit before a pallid sky. These moments not only serve as commas to punctuate the swirl of chatter arising from the portraits and the debates they represent, but also encompasses the very themes of three nations living life on one island. At once together and isolated.
Call it conspiracy – call it sensitivity, but this exhibition does, by its end, induce a creeping sentimentality. Not anything as one-tone, or uncomplicated as patriotism. It’s something more accurately characterised as respect – even awe. A timely reminder of the mind-boggling vastness so regularly flattened into that bluntest of objects: “the general public”. It may not carry an overt message of hope, yet there is something not unlike that bobbing below its surface. After all, an invisible Britain is not a blind one; and a separated isle is not shattered or broken.
Header image: Tanya Costa by Roland Ramanan
‘Invisible Britain – This Separated Isle’ is showing at Ffotogallery in Cardiff until 19th Feb 2022.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.