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Homing in on the Collection

The British Council Collection, according to its website, comprises the very best in British practice in all media. It begins from the mid-20th century with works by Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson, among others. The exhibition, Homelands, that opened at the Harrington Street Arts Centre on Thursday, trains the spotlight on specific artworks from this huge repository that deal with the theme of “The idea of being British” in a multi-cultural society where one is constantly confronted with uncomfortable questions about one’s mother tongue and identity — ethnic, cultural and otherwise.

Young curators from various countries were invited to cull artworks that represent a constructive and productive critique of the state, and Latika Gupta was selected to curate this particular one. Eighty artworks from the Collection by 28 leading and contemporary artists are on show “to reveal a rich plurality of meaning; ideas of belonging, alienation, history and memory”, to quote the Homelands website. Gupta’s was an unenviable task for this can prove to be a minefield. Political correctness is the easy way out. And as this exhibition demonstrates, it is well nigh impossible to veer away from this pitfall, for who would want or dare to offend the minorities (quite often self-righteous) in all spheres of life?

So who are the Big British artists here? To begin with, there is the entire series of marvellous David Hockney prints titled The Rake’s Progress from the early 1960s, and eight Turner prize winners or nominees besides, the best known of whom in this region is Mona Hatoum, a video and installation artist of Palestinian origin, who lives in London and who was a 1995 Turner nominee. Then there is Gillian Wearing, the 1997 Turner prize winner. Gupta has avoided the provocative. But she has included Fabien Cappello, whose work is a clutch of ceramics (not really mainstream), the product of a collaborative project with six designers responding to the city of Lisbon. Grayson Perry’s large, gleaming vase with its funny priapic imagery has also emerged from the margins.

Hockney’s Rake’s Progress is as spare as Hogarth’s was rich in details. Yet both are unsparing. One of the most beautiful artworks is Hatoum’s cut-throat razor-like contraption that simultaneously furrows the earth on which it rotates and smooths out the grooves as well. It is poetic with or without a “message.” Her video showing impressions of her mother’s naked body with lines from her letters in Arabic superimposed on them (like barbed wire, as Gupta explained) conveys the despair of severance. Nathan Coley’s Camouflage Bayrakli Mosque with its horizontal stripes and mirror floor is equally arresting.

Ironically, the most memorable work is aural, titled The Last Silent Movie, the only visual being the transcriptions of sound recordings of extinct or endangered languages. Concealment led to extinction. One can say that of all cultures in exile.