In 2013, Pali Palavathanan was turned away from a border crossing in Latin America. Officials refused to believe he was British – despite the fact he was born in England and holds a British passport.
“I met another British guy [with red hair] and we decided to go through the border together, because it can be quite dangerous if you’re travelling alone,” he explains. “He went through and showed his passport, and they said ‘fine’. Then I went through and they stopped me. In Spanish they said, ‘You’re not British. You can’t be British’…. I wasn’t angry but, well, people don’t always realise how incredibly diverse the UK is.” The year before, Palavathanan recalls watching Somalia-born Muslim Mo Farah win two gold medals for Team GB at the London Olympics – a moment he recalls as “incredible” and an inspiring example of Britain’s diversity.
The border crossing incident inspired Palavathanan and TEMPLO to embark on a project celebrating cultural diversity and exploring what it means to be identified as British.
Using the Union flag as a starting point, the studio teamed up with the Saturday Club Trust – an initiative set up by the Sorrell Foundation to provide free art and design classes to teenagers – and held workshops with 13 to 16-year-olds, who were asked to create their own bespoke flag by combining the Union grid with flags of other nations. Workshops were held in Sunderland, Sheffield and the Victoria & Albert Museum (student from the V&A masterclass with his bespoke Brit-ish flag shown top. Image: Magnus Andersson).
The workshops resulted in over 100 designs, with each student creating a design based on their own heritage. Sorrel Hershberg, director of the Saturday Club Trust, says the project was “a great opportunity for [students] to consider identity and how this intersects with design”.
Twenty of the flags created in workshops go on display at Somerset House today, in an installation hanging from the Stamp Stairs of the building’s Embankment Galleries. The installation forms part of Utopia – a year-long series of events in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s text of the same name, and TEMPLO will be hosting workshops for visitors to Somerset House allowing them to create their own designs.
Palavathanan hopes the project will spark debate around diversity ahead of this week’s EU referendum. Immigration has been a key talking point, with politicians such as Nigel Farage citing fears of mass immigration as a reason to leave the EU. The project, he says, serves as a reminder that mass immigration to Britain is not a new phenomenon.
“People seem to forget that we are a tiny island, and that we all had to come here from somewhere,” adds Palavathanan. “People are talking about mass immigration as if it’s a new thing, but it’s been happening for centuries, so we wanted to discuss this.” The aim, he says, is to show that people don’t have to identify as “one thing or the other” – they can be British, and African, or American, or Canadian, or whichever other countries they might have links to.
As well as the installation at Somerset House, Palavathanan will be selling prints of various Brit-ish flag designs. He has trademarked the project name and will soon be launching a website allowing people to create and share their own hybrid designs. He has also been meeting with the government to discuss how the project could be used in conversations about diversity. “We’ve been working on this project for three years – we wanted to implement the idea, rather than just release it as a make-believe project,” he says.
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