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Groundbreaking exhibition explores national identity through art
The Gilberd School and The Alternative School of Economics, 2018. Courtesy The Alternative School of Economics.

COLCHESTER.- Firstsite, Colchester, is presenting The Britishness Project, a groundbreaking exhibition that explores national identity through art.

From September to December 2017, eight professional artists undertook residencies for one term at seven schools and education organisations in Colchester, Harlow and Harwich. During this time, the artists and students aged from 7 to 16 investigated notions of Britishness through art-making. The project used engagement with visual arts to enable young people to explore issues of identity and Britishness in the context of the recent European Referendum.

The residencies have created content for a major exhibition at Firstsite, showcasing work made by young people in a gallery with an international profile. A total of eight projects are being exhibited, including a display of loans from the collections of the Colchester and Ipswich Museums that has been curated by students.

The projects consist of works in a variety of mediums including collage, stop motion animation, sculpture and photography, and engage with ideas of identity, landscape, sub-culture, democracy and political voice. By inviting young people to speak up about issues that affect them and their future, The Britishness Project is an opportunity to generate wide-ranging conversations in a public forum on the shifting social, geographic and political identity of Britain.

Students at Harwich and Dovercourt High School have worked with artist EVEWRIGHT on a stop-motion animation film, which explores the formation of British identity through its cultural tropes. Entitled British Alien, the work tells the story of an alien’s exposure to icons of Britishness – such as the Queen, Big Ben and fish and chips, and how these contribute to our sense of identity.

With artist Richie Moment, students at Kingswode Hoe School, Colchester, have created a work that looks at nail bars as an exemplar of the changing face of the British high street. Now a vibrant and integral component of high streets across the UK, the work examines the idea of the nail bar as a site of cultural exchange and communication.

Amy Leung has developed the interactive installation Decisions Decisions, which is being displayed in the gallery alongside students’ work. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to express their opinion on a range of questions related to the show that will change throughout the exhibition, by voting using specially designed ping pong bat paddles and taking selfies of their answers.

Says Firstsite Director Sally Shaw: ‘With the UK seeking to redefine its relationship with Europe, The Britishness Project is timely and pertinent. Art has always played a significant role in defining nationality, most clearly seen in History Painting and landscape art. More recently, artists have used it to challenge the stereotypes that the art of earlier times created. A perfect example is last year’s Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid, who had a solo show at Firstsite in the summer that explored complex stories of race and migration.

‘The artworks that make up this presentation are all fascinating in the way they reflect changing notions of national identity, and we hope that these will serve as a catalyst to all those who visit the show to ask themselves questions about what Britishness means to them.’

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