A small but significant memory from my teen years is a conversation I had with my Mother about her citizenship. She’s Punjabi but was was born in Nairobi and moved to Birmingham as a young girl. I had asked her when she became a British citizen. She informed me in a ‘I can’t believe you don’t know this’ tone that obviously she was born a British citizen as her Father worked for the British. She also informed me regardless of that, she was a ‘British subject’ as Kenya was ruled by the Empire. I took in the information and because I was a self indulgent teenager, didn’t give it much thought for a number of years. But it sat there, stored in the back of my mind.
I am ashamed to say that it’s only the past few years that I’ve begun to fully understand my family history. And because of that, I can actually understand Britain. I think it was the conversations around Brexit that started it for me. All the negativity surrounding the campaign, the questions raised about who has the ‘right’ to be here, who has the ‘right’ to call Britain home. When my family moved to Birmingham from Kenya in the 60’s, people would say to ‘go back to where you came from’ which is ironic considering they were only there in the first place because the repercussions of the Empire had forced them out of their homeland. Twice. First from India. Then from Kenya. And regardless of any of this, they were still so-called ‘British Subjects’. As I am incapable of having any thoughts that don’t lead to an artwork, my brain started whirring with ideas on this topic.
In 2018, I was commissioned by Sky Arts to make a work for ‘Art50’, a festival to reflect on our national identity in relation of Brexit. When I heard about an Empire show at Birmingham Museum called ‘The Past Is Now’, it grabbed me instantly. Those 4 words so succinctly stated what I’d been trying to articulate since the referendum and I had to get to the show.
‘The Past Is Now’ was a revelation, not only in the content itself but in the complex conversations that arose about how we decolonise museums. I learnt a lot about the links between Birmingham and Empire but one thing that stayed with me was a wall text with the quote ‘We’re here, because you were there’. It got me thinking about how I can use my own family history to tell the story of multicultural Britain today.
The main focus of the work are portraits of myself and my parents. As my mixed background has often felt at times like leading a double life with two split identities, it’s a work of two halves. On my Mum’s side of the painting there’s the Indian, Pakistan and Kenyan flags which trace her route to Britain through the history of Empire. My Dad’s side is well…British in the conventional sense! In the circles I’ve included symbolism, such as ethnic diversity forms (which have always been a slight nightmare for me to fill in!), references to my own work about dual identity and historic pictures of partition.
My Father passed away suddenly the day after I took the reference photo for this painting. This added so much more meaning for me – thinking about heritage, family and what we pass on as I worked on it. My parents met and married in Birmingham so this feels a really fitting and a beautiful ending for this work to now be in the permanent collection at Birmingham Museums. It’s a real honour and I can’t wait to see it on the wall.