Countervailing aesthetics? Depictions of British Muslims and the multicultural working class in post-7/7 art

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This article considers the significance of artist Philip Gurrey’s 2008 series of portraits of members of multicultural working-class communities in Beeston, Leeds, in the social, political, and cultural context of the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. Reflecting on the impetus for making these works, Gurrey has observed that “the predominant rhetoric [in 2007] was almost as if this place was generating extremism” (2014a: n.p.). In his opinion, “the artist’s prerogative is to look at the aesthetic generated; the feel and mood of the place as portrayed by the media was completely wrong” (2014b). This essay focuses on The Beeston Series (2008–2009) of paintings, which Gurrey composed by merging and splicing together the features and skin-tones of the suburb’s community members, and subsequently exhibited to local audiences at the BasementArtsProject in south Leeds, a space removed from the metropolitan centres that appeared either to dismiss or to demonize them. Drawing on Jill Bennett’s explorations of art as the “critical, self-conscious manipulation of media” (2012: 6), this article goes on to explore how such mundane and unsensational, though striking, portraits presented an aesthetic that ran counter to contemporaneous representations of such communities as the breeding grounds of Islamic terrorism. It argues that through such critical, aesthetic approaches, artists in twenty-first-century Britain contest still-dominant discourses around the failure of multiculturalist policies and supposed alienness to indigenous British culture of Muslim identities, and fears about the harbouring of an “enemy within”. In doing so, it draws comparisons between Gurrey’s regionally-specific paintings and other more metropolitan attempts to depict the aesthetic realities of 7/7, the perpetrators of such attacks, and the multicultural, working-class identities scrutinized in their wake. Works discussed in relation to The Beeston Series include Mark Sinckler’s controversial drawing Age of Shiva (2008), and Faiza Butt’s Is This the Man (2010) portrait series.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)240-254
JournalJournal of Commonwealth Literature
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2018


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