The Olympics through the lens

London launched a rich variety of Olympic photography exhibitions last week.

You could be forgiven for not knowing where to look first as the capital city launched a myriad Olympic photography exhibitions last week. Whilst Tate Britain opened its nostalgic vintage homage to the metropolis "Another London", The Photographers Gallery by contrast unveiled its ambitious long term project "The World in London". Staged as a large outdoor portrait exhibition that is best encountered via bike (and while wearing imperviously waterproof clothing), it showcases 204 commissioned portraits of Londoners, each originating from one of the Olympic game’s competing nations by 204 acclaimed photographers. The exhibition is repeated across two sites; the BT London Live site in Victoria Park, Hackney and at Park House development in central London’s Oxford Street. Despite the struggles presentating such a project -- the simplistic large scale posters that imbricate slightly with little consideration to pacing -- the depth and breadth of this project is a huge achievement, especially when considering the many pitfalls that a large publically funded project such as this can be faced with. The ensuing exhibition is as much a survey of London’s diverse cultural heritage and identity as it’s a celebration of portraiture itself.

In refreshing contrast and far from the saccharine buzz of the Olympic celebration, "Residual Traces" at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton is a group exhibition of 6 photographic projects concerned with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the subsequent marginalisation of a community in one of London’s least known and contentious areas, the Lea Valley. A formerly overlooked and undeveloped enclave of urban neglect - pylons and graffiti, Tower blocks and abandoned sheds, compulsory land purchase orders and hipster regeneration - this polemical exhibition explores the hastily engaged transformation of one of London’s most loved hinterlands. The work included in this exhibition documents aspects of this transformation of Lea Valley and includes work by Sophia Evans, Stephen Gill, Zed Nelson, Jason Orton, Jan Stradtmann and Gesche Weurfel. The exhibition is curated by Bridget Coaker, Director of Troika Editions.

"The World in London" : Victoria Park Dates: 27 July - 12 August 2012, Park House Dates: 27 July - 30 August 2012; Admission: Free Venues: Victoria Park, E3; 453 - 497 Oxford Street, London, W1. 

"Residual Traces": a group exhibition curated by Bridget Coaker: Troika Editions, 27 July – 7 September 2012, Photofusion Gallery, 17A Electric Lane Brixton, London SW9 8LA, 020 7738 5774.

"Another London": 27 July – 16 September 2012, Tate Britain Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.

 

Manor Garden Allotments London, 2007 by Jan Stradtmann on view at Photofusion
Rebecca McClelland is photography editor of the New Statesman
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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.