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Art Review: Mimesis: African Soldier and When the Snow Melts at the New Art Exchange

1 November 19 words: Adrian Shaw

The New Art Exchange is the host to two remarkable exhibitions this Autumn, which highlight the role played by the British Empire and Commonwealth in the Great World War (1918-18), and the Second (1939-45), which our Adrian can only recommend as essential viewing, now we are entering a critical period in the Brexit negotiations. ...

The New Art Exchange is the host to two remarkable exhibitions this Autumn, which highlight the role played by the British Empire and Commonwealth in the Great World War (1918-18), and the Second (1939-45), which I can only recommend as essential viewing as we are entering a critical period in the Brexit negotiations. 

It seems that hidden in this current period is a renewal for Islamophobia and racism, so it’s a timely moment for these two hugely topical shows here in Nottingham - which, with the rest of the East Midlands, is an outpost of the Windrush and Asian diasporas, as well as people from the rest of our former Colonies.

I have chosen to write a joint-review here, as a Child of Empire and British-Indian army veteran myself, since both of these excellent shows are united in exemplifying the use of the colonised as ‘cannon-fodder’, no matter how much writers like Kipling tried to romanticise it. Both exhibitions employ documentation as well as photographic means as personal testimony to tell their stories – When the Snow Melts uncovers graphic living testimonies of Muslim African and former Raj servicemen. Though presented in separate galleries, these shows underpin the dramatic realism of the price paid by subjects of their Majesties and their imperial Governments in defence of the Motherland – stories all-too-often neglected and forgotten in movies and other literature.  

This is absolutely not to deny the heroism of the sons and daughters of these Isles, merely to add another dimension in the struggles of the World Wars. As ever, with events like these, the question arises: ‘why now?’ We as a country are nearing an ‘11th hour’ – our current national civil conflict around Brexit. Similarly, to the end of the second World War, both led, or are leading to, a widespread unwelcome rise of Fascism and Racism, and are related to increasing Islamophobia, among other significant things.  Both under-causes were /are mired in myths which need vitally exposing to the light of truth. 

MIMESIS (downstairs at NAE) is the site of John Akomfrah’s African Soldier which using a tableaux of actors in African and Asian backdrops with an amazing tri-screen approach, documents the fission of peaceful home life as the Mother Country summoned six million of its ‘native people’ to fight as both soldiers and labourers during the Great War. It does this by using official War documentary footage of the actual processes – from assembly to battle to denouement, ending with the handing-out of medals by general and field-marshals to the survivors of the conflict.  The actors, dressed in various uniforms, represent the fact that both sides had its colonies.  It also shows the fighters relaxing with dancing, acting, playing musical instruments in ’rest-periods’, and the use of priests to give their spiritual blessing to the carnage. The end of each ‘section’/sequence of film also includes a word - eg ‘discontent’, ‘letdown’, ‘mistrustful’, ‘ etc. – indicating moods, and introducing the next sequence.. This results in a powerful and complete portrayal in its own way – very effective with the official footage inserts. 

One is left with a sense of the futility, and the enforced bravery of the participants to the whole affair, and hopefully, anger at the racism underlying the tragic carnage.  A closing remark by the socialist/pacifist/feminist writer and activist, Rosa Luxemburg, is entirely pertinent: “Those who do not move do not notice their chains.”

Upstairs, When the Snow Melts uses personal exhibits, maps, excellent painted collages, photographs, and text.. They hosted a panel of speakers, including Jagdish Patel and Farida Makki (Artists), Sajid Mohamed (of Himmah), and personal testimony of two veterans (one a 99 year-old, of the second World War!), with three family-members (Inayet Ali, Motha Ali, and Ebrima Ndure) and Paddy Tipping (Notts Police & Crime Commissioner) - with a call for awareness and action in the continuing fight against increasing Islamophobic and racist attacks (post) Brexit.

These remarkable, excellent Exhibitions (including supporting events) achieve this objective. They are informative and necessary, both separately and together, and well-deserving your time.

Mimesis: African Soldier and When the Snow Melts are at the New Art Exchange until Tuesday 31 Dec.

New Art Exchange website

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