In 2014 the term ‘British’ was facing extinction from a trend towards nationalism and the possibility that the two largest countries remaining under its banner would separate.
198 gallery’s exhibition Without an Empire – Ghosts Within by Said Adrus highlighted how British history and makeup is shared far beyond the remaining nations in the British Isles.
Displayed in the gallery are four large photographs of two mosques and war memorials, as well as two films made from archive footage of Indian soldiers in Britain during the First World War.
During a talk about the exhibition at 198 and a Q&A with Adrus, he told us that the photographs on the left of the gallery were of a mosque he saw first from a train whilst travelling through Woking. It turned out that the mosque was the first in Britain and was once used as a memorial for Muslim soldiers from India that fought during the Second World War.
This memorial was later moved to Brookwood, which was the photo on the right of the gallery, and the memorial in Woking had been left to become buried by its surrounding nature.
The films were displayed in a separate room at the back of the gallery, with a large black and white film projected on one of the walls and a colour film on a small monitor by the projector.
Both films were made from archive footage from Screen Archive South East at Brighton University, with the large black and white projection showing selected clips from a propaganda video used to recruit soldiers in south Asia as well as at home. It shows injured Indian and Gurkha soldiers, alongside White British soldiers outside Brighton Pavilion, which was used as a hospital during the war where many south Asian soldiers were treated.
Adrus selected these clips from a longer film because of their relationship to the photographs in the exhibition, as they are part of the same narrative. In one particularly striking image, a seriously debilitated Indian soldier Havildar Gagna, smiles and salutes his fellow soldiers whilst receiving the Indian Order of Merit.
The film and photos combine to give a multicultural picture of the war and show that the freedom enjoyed on this island today was fought for by all territories of the British Empire, and all the faiths practiced in those territories. However, as Adrus is suggesting with his work, this side of our country’s history is not prominent when discussing the war or British identity (as ugly a term as that might be) as a whole.
The artist himself began this project six years ago after discovering his Kenyan father’s war medals from when he was a member of the British army. It provokes us to review the diversity of our society today.
Written by Keith Wallis