Hearing the expression “family portrait”, you probably wouldn’t think of 76,000 children photographed in their school uniforms and displayed in billboards across London. It’s the new artistic exhibition by award-winning film director Steve McQueen, Year 3 – which somewhat reminds of his Oscar-worthy 12 Years a Slave (2013) – that just ended in the British capital city after a couple of weeks of exposure. The artist neutrally depicts the young students of 70% of London’s schools in their 3rd year class pictures, sitting and standing, more or less looking at the camera. Some of them are smiling, others are making faces: they’re being normal eight-year-old children.
Showcasing diversity – The treasure-hunt under overpasses, down tube galleries and by bike lanes to find all 600 advertising-like portraits (as many as McQueen could collect) reveals more than missing front teeth and blonde braids. Most children of the 3,000 overcrowded classes are non-caucasian, many wear headscarves. In a Brexit-obsesses London, could this festive diversity manifestation be casual, and therefore pass unnoticed? The capital is the main display in the country to get a message through. The target might be those who are probably too old to have eight-years-old sons and daughters attending school and are therefore missing the racial identity’s evolution of the average English classroom: the over 65, the greatest homogenous group who voted leave. This could be the case even more so with such an ethincity-sensitive director and artist as Steve McQueen: the London-born 50-year-old film maker is both of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. Since his very first major film, Bear (1993), he raised questions about race, sexuality and violence. “I remember going to the National Portrait Gallery and the only black people I saw there were the guards,” said working-class-born McQueen, adding “Art school was my liberation, that was where I could achieve my goals and realise myself. That opportunity should be offered up to every single kid and they can go off in whatever direction they want”. Together with every shot came an educational project aimed at the children, to properly involve them in the artistic creation. This is one of the reasons why it took Year 3 so much time to be put together: realized in collaboration with the Artangel organization and displayed at Tate Britain until May 2020, it also required written releases of responsibility from each of the pupils’ parents. This “portrait of citizenship” needed a year and a half of preparation.
A change of mind – The exhibition’s curator Clarrie Wallis underlined as well how the project was about “instilling a mindset” in schoolchildren that they could go on to achieve whatever they wanted. Each day for 20 weeks, 600 schoolchildren will be brought to Tate Britain to view Year 3. Each class photographed will come to central London to see their picture hanging on the walls and watch a video of the artist directly talking to them.
McQueen’s work has been addressed with optimism. In those mute laughters and cheeky faces an editorial published by The Guardian found a joyful perspective picture of contemporary London, its best face somehow: “Year 3 is the portrait of a city – or rather of a city’s potential. It is a portrait, above all, of hope”.