Review: Missing and Migration Stories at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Originally published by Buzz Magazine 28th February 2012

When the Scottish National Portrait Gallery reopened in December it seemed to have shifted focus. From simply displaying evocations of people, the gallery has been rebranded to offer ‘A Portrait of a Nation’. This was coined in April 2009 when the gallery closed for a refit, but since then the SNP have gained overall control of parliament and we find ourselves hurtling towards a referendum on independence. An auspicious idea then, if the exploration of Scottish national identity hadn’t already been the portfolio of most major artistic heavyweights in the country. It does seem curious that a portrait gallery would display large landscape prints in its photography gallery, and the policy has mixed success with current temporary installations Missing and Migration Stories.

Missing

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Missing is an eight minute video installation by Graham Fagan, originally displayed at performances of the National Theatre of Scotland’s play of the same name. While Andrew O’Hagan’s book, later adapted for the stage, is an investigation of missing persons in the light of the West murders, Fagan seems to have concentrated on those committed by Peter Tobin and Bible John.

Two screens sit side by side, the right showing more measured, still camera work, the left more frenetic. The film starts with matching images of the sea and ends with footage of the moon, but in between the screens contrast varying images. The power of the piece shines when it is at its most abstract: a stroll through a fly-tipping site on the left while a scrum of wee boys play rough and tumble on the right, or the colours of Piccadilly Circus on the left mimicking the kaleidoscope of an old duvet cover on the right.

But despite some subtly compelling imagery, there is an inescapable feeling that the artist has been held back by his commission. A close-up of a book about Madeleine McCann, for example, feels heavy handed and footage from a train coming into London is over expositional. Fagan’s appetite to explore individual and national identities doesn’t need a tacked-on narrative, and as such feels out of place in a Portrait Gallery. This piece would’ve been best enjoyed as an aperitif to O’Hagan’s play.

Migration Stories

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Migration Stories is a commission by the gallery of German photographer, Verena Jaekel, to portray what’s described as Scotland’s “confident and diverse” Pakistani community. Each picture is a straightforward portrait of a successful Pakistani Scot at home with their family. The artist has each family relaxed, not smiling; an uncomplicated approach that allows the viewer to concentrate on the faces and relationships of the subjects.

Individually the photographs are unremarkable, but as a collection it makes for an interesting piece. Among those captured are actor Atta Yaqub with his brother, BBC4’s Mona Siddiqui, politicians Mohammad and Anas Sarwar, and Tommy Sheridan’s notorious lawyer Aamer Anwar. Farkhanda Chaudhry MBE of the Muslim Women’s Network is notable for being pictured with only the women of her family. Bashir Ahmed Maan CBE, who was Britain’s first ever Muslim councillor in 1970, rose from humble beginnings as a door to door salesman.

Like every other subject in the piece, Maan is sitting in his salubrious middle class home with a loving and supportive family, while the struggling door to door salesmen of today are notable by their absence from this collection. With Pakistanis being among the poorest racial groups in the UK, this can’t really be described as an accurate portrait of our nation. A strong community acknowledges and supports its weakest members – this is evident by the actions of many of Jaekel’s subjects, but not by the exhibition itself. But this doesn’t detract from an interesting display, and is well worth a look.

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