Artist Provocation: Shaheen Kasmani

Lay back and think of England,
This green and pleasant land

From primary school level, throughout secondary, and then on to A-level, whenever children in this country are taught anything about history it centres around the Tudor kings and queens, the industrial revolution, and Britain’s role in the two world wars. Inward looking at most, Eurocentric at the least. What we aren’t taught about is Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with ‘The Moors’ or the expanse of Queen Victoria’s reign (or her secretary and bestie Abdul Karim). We’re not taught about the people, produce or profits that fuelled the industrial revolution, or the 15 million troops from around the world forced to fight for Britain during the war. How exactly did Britain become such a great superpower? And why is my curriculum so white?

Maybe the reason for generations not being taught the truth about the county’s history is that it is indeed a dirty and sordid tale of occupation, crime, murder, theft, rape and pillage. To see some of the fruits of colonial labour for free, one just has to take a walk round one of the many wonderful museums, showcasing treasures from as far as Mesopotamia and Malaysia. Perhaps the series of leaders of the nation are ashamed of what they and their forefathers have done. Nobody talks about the concentration camps in Kenya, or how Churchill committed genocide in Calcutta, nor about the many slaves and plantations in the Caribbean owned by the British. And its not just blood that has been spilt, but resources stolen and art looted. Language, culture and values have been imposed on entire populations. Aspects of heritage were incorporated and passed off as owned by the dominant narrative, and still are. Perhaps people are ashamed. Or perhaps they are in denial. Or maybe it’s a case of ego.

Either way, studies show that trauma can be inherited, and passed on to future generations. Can a fake sense of self and superiority be inherited too? And if we don’t know who we are as a country, who we really are, or in which direction we’re going, how can we even begin to define what British values might mean, especially in the midst of a national identity crisis, even as we are increasingly questioning the identity of others, at an institutional level down to the individual. Don’t we need spaces of honesty, recognition and healing? Surely Rhodes must fall?

We are currently seeing an increasingly romanticised view of history that is one sided and doesn’t take lived reality into account. People are proud of their history without realising the brutality that was inflicted upon populations around the world. Ideas about imperialism are still prevalent and effect the psyche of the country. We are presently being made to suffer through some odd sort of nostalgia, which for many of us immigrants and children of immigrants, is like looking at back at an abusive and toxic relationship, and the abuser claiming how wonderful and whimsical it all was.  Was it a lot of bad stuff with some good bits, or mainly good stuff with some bad bits, which makes it ok? If we know our history and our heritage, then we know ourselves.

And stop moaning about immigration.

Further Reading:

Shaheen is one of the Lead Artists working on TEDxSkoll, who have been commissioned to create a new piece of work in response to the theme of Truth. We know that artists play a key role in challenging our interpretations and preconceptions of the world around us, and have the power to make us think and feel differently on topics that are vast or intangible. For this reason, provocations from Shaheen and 3 further artists will be on display at TEDxSkoll, as well as featuring on our blog in the run up to the day. They will also be curating a publication to accompany the event, featuring their findings, along with artwork collated from an open submission process.