Everyone Belongs Everywhere: Race, Place, and Diversity by the Seaside – Suki Dhanda

By Helen Tope

Suki Dhanda with one of the families photographed for Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Suki Dhanda Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

In a brand new exhibition, Plymouth College of Art welcomes back one of its students. Through a series of photographs, Suki Dhanda details Plymouth’s development, and asks how this could change as Brexit approaches.

Dhanda works as a photographer for The Observer and The Guardian. A student in Plymouth during the 1980’s, she was asked by Plymouth College of Art to stage an exhibition of her work. Revisiting Plymouth during a 6-month period, Dhanda discovered a richer, more varied culture. Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside charts Dhanda’s photographs of local residents. Framed against her response to Brexit, Dhanda’s exhibition suggests not divide, but commonality.

In Kristian and Harry, Plymouth Hoe (2017), Dhanda shows two men standing on a sea wall, an unbroken horizon behind them. Kristian and Harry look off-camera. What they observe is happening off-frame, but the photo still has a kinetic potency. Possibilities extend off the edges of the photograph, their masculine, classical beauty contrasting with the rocks beneath. Vitality erodes, but strength endures.

Rethinking the classics is something that emerges with regularity in Dhanda’s work. In Nubia, Devil’s Point (2017) Nubia holds our gaze, not with aggression, but with confidence. She is a modern antidote to the passively observed woman. Strong and forthright, Nubia’s presence is, in itself, a creative act. It is a portrait that avoids narrative, portraying instead a fiercely-won independence. It is a real highlight of the exhibition.

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Young women feature prominently in this exhibition, and in Aba, Mount Wise (2017) the subject sits in a crystal-clear pool, her glasses splashed with water. Her gaze is refracted by the droplets, but staring into the camera, she sees us clearly enough. Like Nubia, this is a girl taking the frame for herself, filling the space unapologetically. It is a brilliant riff on the topics that Aba has no doubt grown up hearing; nationality, feminism, body image. In this photo, Aba retains her cool because she has a clear notion of her worth. She is the photograph, not us. Challenging convention quietly and with skill, this exhibition doesn’t insist, it just presents us with another point of view.

 

Playing table-tennis in the sunshine, bat in one hand, ice-cream in the other, Monassen with Niece Oye (2017) are participating in the Great British Summer. Squeezing in the fun while the weather holds, every British family has at least one photograph like this in their collection – a good day crammed with the best of summer. It’s a pattern that has been embedded into coastal resorts since the Victorian era. Monassen and Oye are repeating rituals that have been performed by families for generations.

This photograph works both as comedy and nostalgia – we smile, because we recognise ourselves. The downpours are forgotten in the edit our memory performs; the sunny days merge together into a collage of happy moments. Monassen and Oye are not only performing this ritual, they understand its significance too.

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Suki Dhanda at the opening of Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Suki Dhanda at the opening of Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

The idea that if you are not ‘born-and-bred’, you cannot appreciate another culture is explored in Jerry and Lee, Plymouth Hoe (2017). Two men are holding a makeshift barbecue on the Hoe, plates and cartons scattered around them. Preparing their food with absolute concentration, they invert two cultures – barbecued seabass is going to be served, and eaten with chopsticks.

The photograph boasts a great sense of ownership; Plymouth is not a novelty to Jerry and Lee, it is home, exactly as it should be. They are taking the best of what the coast has to offer, and making something unique, but still recognisably British. Who belongs where, and why? Our nationality, argues Dhanda, is shaped by more than the colour of our passports.

The photographs also handle that sense of familiarity in its different stages; from a temporary, short-lived association (tourists on Mothecombe Beach), to a more rooted, defined connection (Mishari and Ahmad, enjoying ice-cream in the sunshine). The tone of the exhibition is generosity – Dhanda acknowledges that Plymouth has come far in terms of inclusion, but does this view of the city have to be reframed, as we face an uncertain future? How we identify ourselves, and our place in the world, is set to undergo an enormous change, whether we voted for it or not.

Suki Dhanda at the opening of Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Suki Dhanda at the opening of Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Change selected, change imposed – Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside sees identity as a personal construct – everyone belongs everywhere. As we move away from a European identity into something entirely without precedent, this exhibition chooses to bring comfort. No arbitrary change can undo who we are. The politicisation of self is, at best, an exercise in futility. Self is family, history, stories, traditions. They cannot be wiped away that easily; something always remains.

 

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art

Britishness is now too wide a concept to be narrowed down. Rather than searching for difference, says Dhanda, we should be focusing on what unites us. A day at the beach. It’s not about oversimplifying an issue, but rather looking at why we need to complicate something that really isn’t that hard to understand. The fluidity of travel between countries has resulted in a Plymouth that looks, sounds and feels like a modern city. The idea that this progress could not only be halted, but reversed, is an unsettling one. Dhanda’s exhibition instead presents images that counter the notion of ‘them and us’. The connections are not hard to locate; they are already there in our shared experiences. Divisions are not an inevitability. Go outside, walk around, and see for yourself.

Race, Place and Diversity by the Seaside is at The Gallery, Plymouth College of Art until 22 March.