Exhibition Review – Benjamin’s Britain

Benjamin’s Britain
National Portrait Gallery, London
Ended 10 September


Poet Benjamin Zephaniah was asked by the National Portrait Gallery to curate an exhibition on one theme using photographs
from their collection. In typically uncompromising fashion, he settled on four themes and drew from other people’s collections, writes Mark Drinkwater.

Zephaniah’s choices – animals, punky reggae, Muslims, and facial disfigurement – may at first seem surprising, but they reflected his championing of the outsider and underdog.

He chose British Muslims as he sees them being stopped and searched in east London – in the same locations he saw black men
stopped under the notorious “sus” laws, which permitted police to stop and search anyone deemed to be “suspicious”.

On the evening I visited the gallery, Zephaniah gave a talk about why he chose facial disfigurement as a theme. There
was an honesty to the poet’s admission that he was annoyed with himself for staring at the Falklands War burns victim Simon
Weston on first seeing him – as it was a reminder of the way people had stared at him when he was the only black kid in his school.

Zephaniah described curating as a learning experience for himself and for the gallery. He had found that, perhaps not
unsurprisingly, the collection had very few Muslims and people with facial disfigurements.My one complaint would be that the exhibition seemed very cramped. Viewers need to have space so that it doesn’t feel like you’re elbow to elbow with every
other visitor. Next time, I hope the collection gets a bigger space.

This exhibition was about compassion and understanding other communities. The pictures were intermingled and not separated according to theme.

There was a coherence to the collection; a coherence that is sadly lacking in Britain today.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London

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