Last week the exhibition Painting India by the late Howard Hodgkin opened at the Hepworth Wakefield. Hodgkin started collecting Indian miniatures as a schoolboy at Eton and first visited the subcontinent in 1964, travelling with Robert Skelton, the then assistant keeper of the Indian collection at the V&A. Hodgkin would return there many times during his life. He would later say to David Sylvester ‘I think my main reason for going back to India is because it is somewhere else.’ The exhibition at the Hepworth features over 35 works by Hodgkin which take their cue from his visits. The promotional text on the museum’s website notes that the exhibition ‘takes place as part of the UK-India Year of Culture’, a year long initiative that features exhibitions and events throughout the UK.
During the private view of the Hodgkin exhibition, photographs of the evening’s festivities began to circulate on social media. The crowded preview was composed of a predominantly white audience. One guest estimated that he could see around ‘less than ten’ South Asian faces in the audience. The visitors were offered samosas, classical Indian music in the bar and an ice-cream van festooned with the words ‘Fancy an Indian?’ While the crowd might have been predominantly white the publicity photographs arranged for the Yorkshire Post on the afternoon of the preview featured a classical Indian dancer in a sari holding a pose in front of one of Hodgkin’s paintings. The Hepworth event presented South Asia as a decorative background, classical and unthreatening, somewhere where a much-loved English artist could visit, as and when, before returning to make pleasant enough abstract paintings.
The problem with all of this was summed up by the director of an arts organisation in the Midlands who, commenting on the Hepworth event, noted that ‘the lives of most South Asians in Yorkshire are not particularly decorative or fashionable’. Wakefield itself has a relatively small ethnic minority population within which the largest group is its Polish community. However six miles down the A638 lies Dewsbury, a town that came to wider public consciousness when it emerged that Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the four bombers who attacked London in 2005, hailed from there. The following year Britain’s youngest convicted terrorist, Hammaad Munshi, was arrested while walking home from a Dewsbury comprehensive. Last year, Talha Asmal became Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. A fellow pupil at Asmal’s school in Dewsbury told reporters they believed he had been radicalized in the town, rather than online.
Dewsbury and West Yorkshire has become the focus of policy-makers trying to work out why certain South Asian communities are not integrating, and how this leads to radicalization. The Casey Review, published in December 2016, noted that South Asian communities live in more residentially segregated communities than other ethnic minority groups, a phenomenon that is clearly visible across Yorkshire. Dame Louise Casey’s conclusion that ‘as a nation we have lost sight of our expectations on integration’ seemed pretty uncontroversial (even if some of her proposed remedies were) echoing the ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ argument articulated by Trevor Phillips over the past ten years.
What role should a museum have in all of this? The Hepworth is not a small institution that speaks just to its own city. This week it is up for the Art Fund Museum of the Year, the world’s biggest museum prize. It is arguable that a museum of this stature, funded by tax payers through the Arts Council and the local authority has a responsibility to respond to the social and political context around it. And the context around the Hepworth is simple – a series of disaffected South Asian groups who don’t believe that this country’s institutions or shared public spaces are for them. Some members of these groups will go a step further and stop believing in any notion of shared values with the white folk in the next town. And a very small number will take it one murderous step further.
A museum in West Yorkshire that holds an exhibition ostensibly framed by India, has a responsibility to face up to this, and not simply lob Indian food at its gathered white guests. South Asia is no longer ‘somewhere else’ as Hodgkin thought. It’s in the town down the road. Hodgkin’s paintings might be lovely, as might nibbling on a samosa while a lady in a sari holds a classical Indian pose, but at best, the director and trustees of the Hepworth are naive. At worst they are grossly irresponsible. This is not a museum that deserves any sort of prize.