How British artists are responding to Brexit

Whether for protest, expression, or social cause, British artists are responding to Brexit in intriguing ways

Pablo Picasso once described the most integral part of his work as ‘being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image’. Sentiment about art representing times of strife feels especially pertinent in London in light of Brexit.

A raft of artists are responding to Brexit across the capital in a number of exciting ways. For starters, there’s the new Brexit-focussed exhibition as a part of the Mayor of London’s “LondonIsOpen” campaign soon to launch, with the jarring and provocative title The Present Tense. There’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go? at the Patrick Heide Contemporary Art Museum, as well as Banksy’s latest stunt: his Devolved Parliament canvas piece has been put back on display at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to coincide with the original Brexit date of 29 March. For those unaware, the piece depicts a load of chimps running around the Commons, leaving little to question about the artist’s own political views.

Others are more subtle. Only Human, a collection of photographic observations of Britishness by the acclaimed photographer Martin Parr, fails to directly mention the B-word, yet screams it loudly across a diverse set of images taken around the UK.

On the contrary, the Artists For Brexit network, who run campaigning events in the capital, describe themselves as ‘a non-partisan voluntary association and network of artists, art workers and art enthusiasts who support the process of securing independence for the UK’.

Just as the term “Brexit” does for people on the high street, the term “Brexit Art” means something entirely different to each and every artist. For those on both sides of the debate, responding to Brexit with art is a form of protest. ‘Laugh now, but one day no-one will be in charge,’ Banksy wrote on Instagram as his piece – which originally displayed as part of the Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition in 2009 – was unveiled again in March.

Marine Tanguy, the French CEO of MTArt Agency (in the image below) which houses the The Present Tense exhibition, told The Jackal: ‘London has always been incredibly welcoming to me, and throughout this exhibition I want to portray that it remains welcome and accommodating for others from around the world’.

Encouraging Londoners to ‘get out of our echo chambers,’ Tanguy’s exhibit features the work of two prominent artists, Leo Caillard and Jennifer Abessira who convey varying Brexit messages. Tanguy explains that Leo ‘plays with the strength of marble and how fragile the heart is – here the need for us to have more empathy towards one another when dealing with societal divide’.

Abessira, who is commenting on Brexit from her home in Tel Aviv, ‘wanted to narrate her feelings towards London with images… like a hope she could give from afar to the British public’. Alongside these, a selection of photos taken by readers of Dazed & Confused magazine feature.

Others are pushed into making similarly uncomfortable political statements in the name of protest. Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, for instance, is a collaboration between Bartha Contemporary and Patrick Heide, two galleries which ‘are rarely politically motivated, yet both felt that the current debate cannot be left uncommented’.

One lasting impression from the gallery is the work of British artist Susan Stockwell, whose piece “Jerusalem-Br-Exit” is a textile map of Great Britain which is fraying at its borders; its familiar shape contorted.

For ethical warriors, Brexit has provided a good opportunity to promote a worthy cause, as well as raise some cash at the same time. Online, the Turner prize-winning video and installation artist Jeremy Deller has created a limited run of “Farage in Prison” prints in a bid to raise money to save central London bar The Social from closing its doors, while making a bold political statement.

‘Unless new investment is found… the iconic venue will be forced to close its doors. We’re asking you for help,’ a crowdfunder page explains. Deller’s response? One hundred prints priced at £110 each reading in block capitals: ‘Farage in Prison’ on a contrasting powder-pink poster background.

Twitter is further encouraging public dialogue. The Twitter page @BrexitArt is the online face of a coin-operated “Brexit Art Machine”, touring the UK dispensing Brexit art for the cost of either a £2 or €2 coin.

Phil Jupitus, Ai Weiwei and Banksy artworks are sold, alongside originals by UK names including the popular Instagram artist Unskilled Worker. The machine is powered by an Indiegogo page which has raised over £2,800. ‘If the politicians cannot work this mess out then let us start with our artists!’ a description on the page reads.

Unskilled Worker called the art project ‘the only good thing’ to come from a ‘destructive and divisive’ Brexit.

From the Leave camp, the artistic collective Artists for Brexit are promoting their message that Brexit will be beneficial for the arts in Britain due to a focus shift from Britain being a part of the EU to Britain being a powerful independent global voice.

Artists for Brexit take more of a protest stance, touring the UK promoting what they believe to be under-promoted Left arguments which are ‘critical’ assessments of why leaving the EU will be a positive thing, says their website.

Member George Hoare describes the wider aspirations of the group in a post on the collective’s website. ‘Brexit as a political issue has really made me think about the political context in which we produce art, and how it might influence what is made,’ he wrote.

‘While the political context never wholly determines the content of art, we might have reason to think that the breaking of the political deadlock of the capitalist realist age offers new artistic, as well as democratic, possibilities. If we are coming to a place where we can again more easily imagine the end of capitalism, it opens up a whole range of creative positions and possibilities.’

Now that we’re past the initially planned Brexit divorce date and with no signs of light at the end of the tunnel for a solid Withdrawal Agreement, art perhaps provides a cathartic experience for maker and viewer, if not a solution.