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Sarah Maple's Not My Cup of Tea at New Art Exchange

18 August 17 words: Laura-Jade Vaughan

We got down to Hyson Green to check out the latest art exhibition on offer...

When I entered Sarah Maple’s exhibition at New Art Exchange I was handed a stick of rock; a pleasant reminder of many childhood seaside holidays spent in England. Its message read “Go Home”: probably the most uninviting welcome I’ve had at a gallery, but it prepared me for the dry, sarcastic, British humour at the heart of the exhibition, Not My Cup of Tea.

With a playful yet passive aggressive tone, Maple presents a new body of work offering a fresh look at today’s political narratives: from Brexit and the refugee crisis, to terror attacks breeding ill-founded Islamophobia. Reflecting on the motivations behind her new exhibition, the artist explains: “The show looks at our British values, as well as our British identity in the years to come with Brexit.” But her perspective goes beyond the buzzwords and shallow assumptions that define Britishness in our right-wing media, to ask “What really are British values?” The results are humorous while critical, and at times quite uncomfortably challenging.

Not My Cup of Tea is curated in six different zones, each with a different environment. I first find myself in the Living Room, decorated as such, with floral wallpaper, pot plants, pictures on the wall and a sofa pulled in front of a household TV. It is a reminder that this humble setting is a politicised zone, where public opinions are formed. Speaking in light of the recent Leave campaign, Maple explains:

“I’m always watching political things on the TV and I find that there’s so much repetitiveness in the media, but what meaning does it really have? All those phrases become part of culture and it spreads like a virus. I latched onto the phrase ‘I want my country back’ and thought, what is this version of Britain you want to return to? I found it fascinating.”

Taking soundbites from the media, Maple’s Brexit series borrows familiar statements used to fearmonger or bolster national pride: “Take back our jobs”, “Take back control”, or “Breaking Point”, borrowed from UKIPs controversial anti-migration poster. These phrases feature on images that are quintessentially British, showing how some beliefs become entangled with our national identity as much as fish and chips, afternoon tea, or even the Queen.

What Maple presents us with is riddled with contradictions; for instance, can Chicken Tikka Masala be the national dish without acknowledging cultural appropriation? Or, what type of tourists are welcome/unwelcome to visit our seasides? It exposes a sinister psychology employed in political discourse, where joyful symbols of Britishness become manipulative tools used to generalise the values of a nation.

Taking a seat on the homely two-piece sofa, I tune into The National Lottery: a short video playing on loop on the TV. In the style of a British reality TV show, an Englishman is forced to leave his suburban home and swap lives with a refugee. It addresses the fundamental truth that our national identity is determined by chance and, as Cecil Rhodes famously said, being born an Englishman is winning life’s lottery. Maple speculates: “What if the lottery wasn’t at birth, but it happened at a later point?” The video takes a surprising and comical turn; the British man’s wife must host a refugee baby. Maple challenges the portrayal of refugees as unwanted invader who have come to steal jobs and threaten national security.

Looking around, it strikes me that the exhibition might be preaching to the converted: an audience eager to challenge their own beliefs and preconceptions. Yet, it is exciting to see how Maple challenges visitors to become active performers, enacting how we might respond to political discourse beyond the gallery walls. One zone titled Speakers’ Corner, equipped with a stage and megaphone, is a platform for self expression, yet a sign displaying an open invitation actually includes the discriminating disclaimer: “Only people wearing a pink hat may use speakers’ corner” or another equally frivolous criteria.

Even if someone is eligible and does want to make a bold proclamation, Maple also offers a zone located opposite called Safe Space, where one can drown out the noise by wearing an eye mask and headphones playing elevator music. Paired together, Speakers’ Corner and Safe Space are reminders that some voices will always resound louder than others, and some important voices will simply be ignored and lost in the ether.

The exhibition offers a welcome reprieve from the all-too-familiar messages of hate or fear of “otherness”, and directly addresses a widespread social anxiety felt in these uncertain times.

I enjoyed entering the zone ‘#KeepOneTakeOne’, which I saw as a viral campaign against the right-wing media, where people are encouraged to take posters carrying messages from the exhibition with a promise that they will also share another copy of the poster. I was left wondering how far the messages of the exhibition might spread.

Before leaving the exhibition I asked Sarah Maple one final question: “Would you like to display it in a Leave area?”

“Yes!” she shouts excitedly, and I am left hoping that the show might tour one day.

Sarah Maple’s Not My Cup of Tea runs at New Art Exhange until Sunday 1 October 2017

New Art Exchange website

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