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Britain Retold: A Portrait of London

Iranian-born British artist Sara Shamsavari talks about her new City Hall exhibition and argues for a fresh understanding of British identity

For her new exhibition, Britain Retold, Sara Shamsavari will present a collection of sharply empathetic portraits that explore and reinterpret the concept of British identity within London. With an aim to create a singular voice, Sara has photographed a range of culturally diverse individuals and incorporated the symbolism of the Union Jack flag into each image. She seeks to open a platform that will allow the multicultural communities of London to begin re-defining what it means to be British.

The intimate portraits also reflect elements of her own cultural upheaval as a child born in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. Sara and her family eventually fled persecution, and settled in London, where the memories of the ordeal infused her with a desire to make a difference through artistic endeavors. With a belief that artists should be leaders in social and spiritual progress, Sara wants to empower the participants of her work and in doing this, encourage a transformation in the way people view society and themselves. 

Dazed Digital: What do you hope will be the message of this exhibition?
Sara Shamsavari:
Behind all of my work is the idea of cohesion, unity and diversity, and this exhibition is no different. The exhibition creates a platform where people of different backgrounds, specifically in London, can begin to redefine the idea of Britishness in a way that includes everybody. I also wanted to emphasize the fact that tradition can still exist against what’s new; there are people of many different backgrounds in the images including white, English people.

DD: What does Britishness mean to you?
Sara Shamsavari:
As someone of Iranian heritage, I felt a sense of exclusion when I grew up in Britain. As I developed as an artist who work internationally, I realised through my visits to other countries that I am in many ways considered British. It can be as simple as the way I have my tea. I believe that one’s environment can sometimes have as much of an impact as ones heritage and both are important. I’ve come from a very rich culture, but in Iran there’s no freedom and very few opportunities for women working in the arts. For me, freedom of speech is one of the most important things about being British. I think that there is still a lot of that institutionalized racism and xenophobia to get past, but these challenges can’t be compared to not having the basic human right of voicing your opinions.

DD: Why is London so central to this exhibition?
Sara Shamsavari:
Being British means something different in London than anywhere else in Britain. London is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and it embraces difference and freedom of expression. I was at the mayor of London’s carol service recently and the prayer for London addressed the city’s multi communities and faiths, which was beautiful. London has been very influential and inspiring and I feel that people mix a lot more here in comparison to somewhere like New York, where people often to stick to their communities.

DD: You fled the Iranian revolution as a child. What part does this displacement play in your work?
Sara Shamsavari:
It seems as though the whole world is becoming more displaced and these issues are very prevalent in the world we live in. I am dealing with my own displacement through my work and everyone I’ve photographed, not only in this show, but in other projects as well, is in some way a reflection of myself.

DD: You have chosen to feature the Union Jack in your photos for ‘Britain Retold’. What does this flag symbolise for you?
Sara Shamsavari:
When I was younger, the symbol of the Union Jack represented a Britishness that was characterised by the BNP and the National Front. Often I would hear about right-wing extremism and things like this made the Union Jack a frightening symbol for any one who wasn’t white and English. These people adopted the flag but it never belonged to them exclusively. Since the beginning of Britain Retold I have started to feel more positive about it and I see this project as an opportunity to invert that imagery from something that has been negative and oppressive into something positive. A lot of people didn’t want to hold the flag because of these negative connotations so in some of the pictures I have used its symbolism through colours rather than the flag itself.

DD: Do you see the symbol of the Union Jack as a weapon of sorts?
Sara Shamsavari:
That’s a beautiful way to describe it. The flag has certainly been used as a weapon in the past and as you said, used as a threatening weapon. I think that if you’re afraid of anything, you have to take it on. If you’re scared of heights, you should climb a mountain because there’s nothing to fear really. Through sincere communication between people, I’d like to believe that prejudices could be eradicated or at least reduced. Human beings have much more in common than we know – for example, the most basic ideas about ethics are shared by all the major faiths. I’m into the idea of widening circles and communities and focussing on our similarities whilst embracing our differences. I really feel that we’re all drops of the same ocean.

DD: Why did you choose to photograph your subjects?
Sara Shamsavari:
I work with photography because it creates an instant bond with people. I often found that the subjects from marginalised backgrounds in particular didn’t feel confident or valued, despite their economic and cultural contributions to our society. I felt that taking pictures of these individuals elevated them because when you take someone’s photograph, it can have an empowering effect. I also wanted to cover a lot of ground with this exhibition, and so photography was easier, faster and, in many ways, a lot more personal. With photography, I could stop someone I met on the street.

DD: Did you feel a sense of immediacy with this exhibition?
Sara Shamsavari:
I did. I definitely felt a sense of urgency. I think that this exhibition is right on time. One of the biggest things that inspired me was when I saw the London audience tear Nick Griffin to shreds on Question Time not long ago. At that point, I thought that it was time to create a conversation about acceptance and change.  

DD: Do you believe that art has more power to change the world than politics?
Sara Shamsavari:
Yes, I believe that artists are the true leaders. Artists and creative people in general feel that they’re not given the respect that they deserve. Art creates a value-system, which the whole world is influenced by and has the potency to inspire great change. Artists have the ability to affect our emotional state and if you can change the way some one feels you can change the world. I think that the art that comes out of the UK in particular that talks about the experiences of these people is so important at the moment.

Britain Retold - A portrait of London, City Hall, The Queen's Walk, London SE1 2AA, from Dec 13 - January 4, 2011