Anything but British

Britain today wants only the "brightest and best" immigrants; but how do we rate those who use their skills to question our history? An exhibition just opened at Tate Britain tours British art from the 16th century to now and shows how it has been changed by people from other places, or vice versa - prompting responses such as: "What does it mean to be British anyway?"

The most recent work on show reflects the patchwork profile of Britain since 1945. There's painting by the Karachi-born Rasheed Araeen, video by Mona Hatoum, born a Palestinian in Beirut, and work by Black Audio Film Collective, formed in Hackney in 1982.

Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs is uncannily prescient. Shot just after the riots that shook Bristol, London, Liverpool and Birmingham in the early 1980s, it uses archive footage to probe how (mostly young) people reacted to unemployment, anomie, complacent politicians and the unwanted attentions of the law, allowing them to speak their stories on their terms. This is no flat documentary; it achieves a hypnotic effect by weaving many tales, takes a critical distance from life in Britain and reinterprets the effects of colonial history poetically. The people voicing distress, like those involved in last summer's disturbances in English cities, are not exclusively black.

Minority retort

Even the sense of politics permeating Handsworth Songs seems "foreign". The Tate presents the film in the same space as work by Van Dyck, Lely and Whistler, yet few would describe Handsworth Songs as anything other than "black art", or "minority ethnic", or avant-garde. David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein and Mark Gertler, who also feature in "Migrations", faced similar dilemmas in the early 20th century: were they British, or Jewish? Can't be both.

Firing nationalist tags at culture seems both brave and bound to miss the target. We make much of our love for foreign food, a by-product of empire, and how our top two favourite dishes are Chinese and Indian. Let's not scrutinise the noodles in the stir-fry too closely (made in Turkey?), or fuss over whether the average Indian housewife will know what you're talking about if you ask her how she does her chicken tikka masala.

The curious thing about this idea of Britishness is how loose it is, yet how much of a straitjacket. Like the US, we are a nation of migrants but where Americans freely embellish the core idea of what their country stands for, we seem unable to cope with hyphenating our national identity. Anyone for the Belgian-British Peregrine Worsthorne, or Jamaican Yorkshiremen? Maybe not. But we're not like the French: we'd never force others to assimilate.

The new "migrant" cultures in Britain insist that they are different - neither the point of departure nor the destination counts most. As John Akomfrah of Black Audio Film Collective puts it: "The journey is it."

“Migrations: Journeys Into British Art" is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 12 August