Just over 20 years ago, coming up to 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus, the head of the arts department at Birmingham Museums called me. They were planning a big blockbuster of an exhibition to mark the occasion and she had been asked by the director if I, one of the few non-white curators in any museum at the time, and certainly the only one in the biggest local authority museum service in England, would like to make a contribution.With a roving brief as modern world history curator, that took a sweeping interest across all collections and disciplines, I said I would be happy to take part, but wanted to know if she had any ideas as to how I could contribute.
It was at that point that I realised that she wasn't asking me to make a curatorial contribution to the exhibition. What was expected instead was that I use my contacts and knowledge to drum up some support and interest in the city's non-white population who were hugely unrepresented in visitor and user profiles.
This under-representation was something I went on to address, with some success, through a series of gallery interpretations, exhibitions, school partnerships and the rest, during my time at the museum.
My first school, the Seventh day Adventist, in Jalandhar, Punjab, had socialised me to see the beautiful, blue eyed Christ with long blonde curls as “natural”. And that remained the case for a long while.
I have always been attracted to the notion of not taking things at face value, asking questions and taking a "leftfield" approach. As I grew up, and I saw the ubiquitous “Nordic” Christ in visual art and sculpture in black and Asian books, homes and churches and wondered how this could be so. Birmingham Museums’ art department’s offer to “contribute” came as a welcome challenge that I grabbed with some enthusiasm.
The more I looked at museums and galleries’ plans to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Christ, the more I could see a sameness. Everyone relied on their collections and expertise, with the odd loan, to develop exhibitions that were marked by what I felt was an intellectual vacuity.
Even the National Gallery Seeing Salvation: Image of Christ blockbuster had little or no exploration on the theme of how and why Jesus is depicted in art as he is and its impact on how we view ourselves and our place in the world. The notion of power, patronage, colonialism, race and empire (issues we are now beginning to connect with in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on statues such as Colston and Rhodes) did not feature in the glowing reviews that led to long queues and selling of expensive and lavish exhibition catalogues.
I literally got on my bike and, as well as doing copious amounts of research, started to explore local black and Asian churches, Christian colleges and seminaries, artists, collectors and other sources. In time I came up with a proposal for a small exhibition within an exhibition called Black Christ. Of course that was never going to happen.
But what to do with this sudden spanner in the works?
The director at the time was supportive of the idea but the most even he could do was give me a wall and a half and some floor space between two toilets leading up to the main exhibition. Needs must, I felt, and started to construct an exhibition based on what I had borrowed on the theme of “indigenising” Christ, a movement that had been building up a head of steam in some non-European countries. The exhibition included a wonderful painting by local black artist, Alvin Kelly, of his black take on Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross.
With next to no budget and very limited resources I put up an exhibition in what I came to call the “toilet gallery” that looked at Christ as many non-white cultures were beginning to imagine. There were of course, the oldest images of Christ as an Ethiopian, long before European art had even made a start, as well as Korea, Japanese and those as an African and Indian and others.
The exhibition opened and I thought my work was done. But then I got a call from the council's PR who wanted me to come to the museum as the BBC and ITV were interested in talking to me. I explained to the television crews how and why I saw Christ as I did, and went home.
I turned the television on just as I was getting ready to cook dinner. To my great shock, BBC Midlands had the exhibition as its main news item. But my heart sank as, after my bit of explaining the context, the camera panned on to an old white couple. “Here it comes,” I said to myself, expecting a backlash.
Yet, to my great surprise, they both spoke movingly about how as lifelong Christians, they had never thought about Jesus as anything but as a European. To them it was a real eyeopener – as it was to the vicar whose interview followed. To then have Kelly interviewed about his black Christ was the cherry on the pie.
The real issue in the cultural sector is a lack of diversity at all levels among those who interpret, display and act as guardians and gatekeepers of great cathedrals of our national culture. These are people recruited on the “like recruits like” principle, from a pool that is already very restricted in terms of class, ethnicity and gender.
The result is that it is their limited “ways of seeing” that ends up defining much of the narrative around arts and culture and which we see and experience in terms of exhibitions, events, literature and gallery interpretations.
The first exhibition of living artists I curated was with the Singh twins, Amrit and Rabindra. Entwined featured a breathtaking use of techniques of traditional Indian miniature painting to explore contemporary British Asian themes of life, existence, culture and much more.
The artists now have an international reputation and are much in demand. The story was quite different back in summer 1999 though.
The exhibition, launched with appropriate fanfare and accompanied by a lavish catalogue for which I had commissioned write ups by nationally renowned museums and art world figures, was a riot. Except at its last venue, a very famous art gallery in Scotland.
The resident curators more or less refused to be associated with what they considered to be craft and not, in their view, “proper” art. The job of looking after the exhibition fell to a social history curator from one of the local museums. The exhibition was a success, but that feeling of humiliation has stayed with more for more than 20 years.
Black Lives Matter has created an opportunity for cultural institutions, no matter what their motivation, to look at representing the “other” in their work. This is vital if these institutions are to have relevance to a second, third, fourth generation of the progeny of that “other” which is no longer the “other” but are as British as anyone.
What they often miss out on though, and which ends up making cultural institutions of little interest to young non-white, mixed heritage people, is the creative representation of the breathtakingly incredible combination of factors that make them into a new type of Briton.
We are no longer the nation that those with rose-tinted glasses are nostalgic about.
But when this diversity and dynamism of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions is represented, it is far too often through the lens of a collective, homogeneous “other” and some of the most conservative aspects of “other” cultures and traditions.
Histories of slavery, colonialism, historical injustices and exploitation that have underpinned the growth of “Britannia ruling the waves” and which put the prefix “Great” to Britain are important subjects for intellectual and cultural engagement. But they are not the be all and end all of engagement.
The “other” has agency and individuality that can only be explored if the workforce, artists and practitioners of that background are reflected in our cultural institutions. I am not the first person to say this and will not be the last. But I hope the current dynamic of the Black Lives Matter movement that has served to “mainstream” frustrations and anger at discrimination, injustice and silence brings about a cultural change in the sector.
The philosophy that underpinned my work was that it wasn’t about my interests. Rather it was about addressing the issue of huge under-representation of the diversity of the most culturally diverse city outside London. I was, and still am, an atheist, but I knew how important the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus was as a part of our culture.
What I have never done is tokenistic tick-box stuff. Black Christ and Entwined were a statement of using imagination, verve and creativity to create something that would grab people’s attention while at the same time engaging and encouraging people and groups who felt that they didn’t belong into cultural venues.
As a fan of the late great art critic and all-round genius John Berger, my feeling was an affirmation of my lasting value that underpins all I do; that the purpose of great art or interpretation is to alter people's “ways of seeing” and make them think, “wow, I didn't know that”.
I am happy that the church of England is looking at how it depicts Jesus through paintings, sculpture and publications. Although I also have had a lingering feeling of sadness and loss over the past two decades.
I have been very lucky to have been given the privilege to bring some of my whacky ideas into practice in the shape of exhibitions, interpretations and other forms of engagement. But I have always regarded Black Christ as my best work as a curator.
My sense of loss comes from the fact that as there was next to no budget, there were none of the leaflets, posters and other paraphernalia that one usually associates with exhibitions of that nature. I have no material memory of something that altered so many people’s perception of the world they live in. Nothing. Nada.
Raj Pal is a freelance curator and creative producer