It would seem there’s little to look forward to when you’re young and British in 2020. Perhaps that’s the stark reality of how the pandemic is reshaping our culture in ways we can’t yet comprehend, an unknown future that lies ahead. Is Britain broken? The gap between rich and poor is expanding every day, jobs are sparse, and just when we think we know what’s happening with Brexit…
But as with previous crisis points in history, when the UK’s subcultures – musical, sartorial, political – have reacted with revolutionary creativity, there has been a defiant response from the young. The fearless, the hopeful, the angry, the determined. Notably, the 13 emerging artists and photographers featured in our British Art Special, who are each telling their own narrative of modern Britain through paint, photography, sculpture, textiles, even tattooing.
There’s Lewis Khan’s exploration of the NHS in his photo series, Theatre, for which he spent four years documenting London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. In a year when nobody took for granted the work of a British healthcare system battling through the darkest months of the pandemic, his work takes on even greater power.
Joy Labinjo is a figurative painter who often depicts intimate, ordinary scenes of British life. Like many, she was triggered by the killing of George Floyd earlier this year and the subsequent outpouring of global Black Lives Matter protest. The painting reproduced here, Enough is Enough, was created by Labinjo out of anger, frustration and pain, and is an exploration of racism in Britain, and the legacy of Empire and colonialism.
Corbin Shaw also tackles the subject of British identity. A Sheffielder living in London, he reappropriates the St. George’s Cross, a polarising symbol of patriotism in England, then stitches onto the flag slogans such as “SOFTEN UP HARD LAD”. It’s the Yorkshireman’s way of reorienting and rearticulating the pressures of male conformism, particularly in post-industrial cities like his hometown.
Trackie McLeod reworks recognisable UK icons, drawing from the worlds of pop, lad and rave culture. His collages examine the idealised image of being a “man’s man”, and are critical of male-dominated tribes formed in school changing rooms and football pitches, as seen by a Glaswegian growing up young, gay and north of the Anglo-Scottish border.
Then there’s Rene Matić. A 23-year-old queer Black womxn, their area of interest is the skinhead movement and its roots as a multicultural marriage between West Indian and white working-class culture in Britain – one later adopted by racist bootboys. To zero in on these complexities and conflicting elements, Mati´c asked Lal Hardy – a 1970s-vintage punk and skinhead tattooist – to ink “Born British Die British” across their back: a slogan proclaimed by the far right, reclaimed and worn proudly by a mixed-race, non-binary femme.
Perhaps Britain is broken. But if the past year of politics, protest and pandemic has told us anything, it’s that the young are fighting harder than ever for a Better Britain. And, in the process, they’re finding more creative ways to re-energise Bloody Britain. For proof, you need look no further than the next few pages.
Open All Hours (2017)
“I’m fascinated by patriotism and the effect it can have on people,” says Toby Taylor-Smith. He’s been making collages using reappropriated imagery for three years, drawing on British historical and contemporary pop culture references to find humour behind the idea of the stiff upper lip. For Open All Hours, it was an old-school geezer he spotted on London’s Oxford Street that made him think of that rose-tinted view that Britain is losing its “glory days”.
Edem Kelman’s short film, Princess, is a London-set story about a mother who will do anything to ensure her daughter has an unforgettable day. “I felt that by re-contextualising this tale with characters who, like me, are Black would be romantic in an idealistic way, simply because it hasn’t been done before,” he says. Throughout his film work, Kelman is set on exploring marginalised communities in Britain. “I want to show their lives to be as visceral, thrilling and passionate as the next.”
One of the Lads (2020)
Corbin Shaw didn’t grow up with an art background. Instead of milling about in galleries, he’d be in the pub, or at the football with his dad in his native Sheffield. But it’s these traditionally heteronormative spaces, often dominated by men, that influence Shaw’s multimedia work. “I look at the rites of passage of manhood in England, and the obstacles which men pose upon each other in society,” he says. “I’m interested in how heterosexual men perform as ‘men’ to other men, for their approval or as a tribal act of wanting to fit in and belong amongst each other.”
Tristan Bejawn saw a scene play out from a distance last year: a group of young Black kids targeted for stop-and-search by the Metropolitan Police. Throughout his work, photographer Bejawn focuses on the impact of youth violence in local communities throughout Britain. “I couldn’t help but wonder what the emotional impact on a young person would be, having been surrounded by police simply for gathering in a park.” In that incident, no one was apprehended, and everyone went their separate ways. “It’s just part of the everyday dialect of life in South London, [but] I want to reframe the common and insidious narrative portrayed in [the] British media, and address the human and emotional cost that that violence has on London’s communities.”
Small Town Story (2020)
“This country has come together to face some unprecedented challenges in 2020 with a completely incompetent government at the helm.” So says fine art painter Conor Murgatroyd. The Bradford native is inspired by the mundanities of British life – dartboards, scaffolding, the ornate vases in his late nan’s home – to make pieces reflecting “an emotional young man in places like Bradford”.
He combines these with various ambient British aesthetics, like gaudy ’70s wallpaper or a Golf GTI, as metaphors for his own life as a working-class man growing up in the north of England.
In 2015 Lewis Khan was granted access to one of London’s busiest hospitals, Chelsea and Westminster. Five years on, the photographer’s book, Theatre, was published against the backdrop of an NHS battling a global pandemic. Tackling mortality, well-being, sentimentality and spirituality, it exposes the resilience and strength of the British healthcare system before, as well as during, times of great strain.
Rene Matić’s work explores the “immeasurable dimensions” of Blackness in Britain and, in Destination/Departure, they explore the skinhead movement, using it as a metaphor to examine their own experience of living in the Black British diaspora. “To excavate white jealousy, the continued legacy of colonialism and the fear of a Black planet – [these are] all things which find convergence within and upon my mixed-race identity,” the Peterborough born artist says. “It’s all about the glitches.”
Robbie Williams – Angels (2018)
Trackie McLeod bridges the gap between British pop culture and mental health, reeling in recognisable imagery – Gazza, tearful on the Italia ’90 pitch; a boozed-up lad being carried by his mates – to respond to lad culture, and the mental health impacts it has on young men. Gay and Glaswegian, McLeod’s experiences growing up lend themselves to the narratives of hyper-masculine stereotypes, told with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility.
What makes Rosie McGinn’s work British? “I’ve never been asked that, but I can’t deny it when I’m depicting characters like Gazza, and Torvill and Dean,” the sculptor replies. Maidstone’s McGinn is interested in human instinct, chasing heightened moments and the psychological, which drives underlying euphoria and despair. Scoring a goal, winning at bingo, raving – all are intrinsically British activities that provide a sense of faith and escapism. Oh, and good old-fashioned community spirit, which, this year, is a more precious commodity than ever.
The Pony Club (2019)
Drunk punters at Royal Ascot, suited bankers fighting on a street, trackie bottoms and Kappa trainers… Lydia Blakeley paints ostensibly banal scenes, using her fine art practice to elevate and resituate Real Life in Modern Britain. Responding to the events of the past year, the Bracknell-born artist reckons there’s a glimmer of hope that things can get better. “I think there is a shared resilience in this country,” she says. “The charity and generosity of people has really shone through during the current crisis.”
Nina Mhach Durban
All that is in the past we yearn for (2019)
“I am using my practice to question what the role of the diasporic artist is in Britain,” sculpture Nina Mhach Durban says. Durban engages with images and objects embedded in her South Asian upbringing: from Punjabi flyers found near her South-West London home, to a 2008 photograph of Indian actor Shilpa Shetty hugging Jade Goody after the Big Brother race row. “It was a defining and universal moment for those growing up Asian in modern Britain,” Durban says of the incident, which centred on racist comments made by Goody during the show’s fifth series. “It propelled me, at a young age, into direct conflict with my identity and has remained with me ever since.”
Harrison Mills Brown
Oi, Watch Out! (2019)
“I document narratives from around the country, from all different social groups,” says South London-based multimedia artist Harrison Mills Brown. “I don’t think being a British artist is either a good or bad thing, but the contemporary art scene is killing it in the UK.” Brown draws from British regional culture up and down the country, and the icons of contemporary youth, while drawing on class, entitlement, culture, supremacy and government regulation through film, castings and paint. His focus: “The privileges that prevent us from making any real change towards racism, classism and sexism.”
Enough is Enough (2020)
Joy Labinjo questions identity politics, holding a mirror up to the everyday. Her large-scale oil paintings are purposefully uncomfortable and, at times, surreal, comparing how we see ourselves to how we’re seen, through portraits both real and imagined. For Enough is Enough, Labinjo was inspired to paint a photograph she’d taken at a Black Lives Matter protest in London earlier this year. “People participating in the BLM protests during the pandemic, especially Black people, were described as thugs,” she says. “I felt the opposite.”