Backgrounds: Portraits by Dubheasa Lanipekun

By Somerset House

Backgrounds was a photography project that took place as part of the
Kaleidoscope exhibition, aiming to create a portrait of 21st century
multicultural Britain. Photographer Dubheasa Lanipekun reflects on her involvement with the project, as well as her own cultural background and
photographic style.

Dubheasa (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

I am half Nigerian, half Irish. My parents are both immigrants to this country and met in London. I grew up between pre-gentrification Brixton and the rural Irish countryside.

Duality and mixing different cultures has always been a part of my life. My family is political and I was very aware, as a first generation Black British person, of the socio-political struggles of both Nigeria and Ireland, as well as the anti-fascist and anti-racist struggles which occurred in Britain - particularly in the 80s.

Ruth (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Ruth. City: Paris. Background: Scottish/Jewish/South African

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In its most basic form, my “practice” is just me doing things I think are cool and engaging in things I connect with personally. I mainly work as a director in theatre and film, and storytelling is the most important aspect for me in my practice.

Photography allows me to explore the visual side to this as there is a lot of power in a single still image. It allows you to hone in and concentrate on a single moment or aspect of a person’s life.

When looking at stories of immigration and cultural background, it is easy to see that we are all made up of a component of experiences. Looking at a snapshot in time, and connecting with your subject, allows you to delve into what they are thinking relative to what is going on in wider society at present.

Zawadi Vanessa (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Zawadi Vanessa. City: New York. Background: Barbadian/Jamaican/St Croix/Panamanian/American

Liam & Victoria (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Liam & Victoria. Cities: London & London/Liverpool. Backgrounds: British & Nigerian

Jennifer (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Jennifer. City: London. Background: British

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I spent some time during Backgrounds talking with Michael, who was also mixed raced. He grew up in Manchester and in the 1950s his father, a black communist, met his white mother. His father took his mother to Russia to learn how to bring socialist principles to Britain.

He talked to me about the importance of knowing one's heritage and embracing that historical legacy. Racism is overt and covert, and though Michael’s parents fought more overt racism in their day, he now worries for his children, as the racism they will face is more sophisticated covert racism.

This was very thought provoking for me, looking at all the different layers of resistance and rebellion Afro-Caribbean immigrants have had to go through and are indeed still going through.

Though Michael’s story celebrated his heritage, he was deeply aware of the current anti-immigrant atmosphere pervasive in society. So a love and admiration of one's culture is marred by new age racism.

Alison & Nina (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Alison & Nina. City: London. Backgrounds: Black South American & English/Ghanaian

Ricky (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Ricky. City: London. Background: English/Irish/Jamaican/Native American

Jennifer & Carla (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Jennifer & Carla. City: London. Backgrounds: British/Brazilian/Nigerian & Brazilian

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The project was a very grounding experience and I certainly came away thinking Britain would be so boring without immigration.

Talking and engaging in community practice, by talking to strangers, allows you to feel connected with London. Within my own work I try to find the social truth within artistic practices and bring out those ignored stories.

It genuinely was heartwarming to see people marvel in their cultural heritage, embracing all facets of their background. Though scary to realise the same strand of fear, worry and confusion about the future of a post-Brexit Britain was repeated. There was an overwhelming sense of disconnect and betrayal, between the Britain they know and the Britain that serves a racist agenda.

I do not think we came across a “broad section of society” though, for various reasons. I do think it is important to rectify this and overcome any indices which would have prevented different people from coming and taking part.

Jian, Dulcie, Cassandra, Louis (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Jian Wei, Dulcie, Cassandra, Louis. City: London. Backgrounds: British/Malay-Chinese, British, British & French

Shelby (2019/2019) by Dubheasa LanipekunSomerset House

Shelby. City: London. Background: Black Caribbean

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This was part photography project, part ethnographic study. Photography allows you to explore different aspects of humanity in people to build up a picture of their background.

I like photography because it is a great conversation starter. People are more willing to allow you to ask them personal questions, and it is the deep interesting stuff that is the most intriguing and exciting.


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Backgrounds was inspired by Indian photographer Masterji's portraits of newly arrived South Asian immigrants and their families in Coventry. The project aimed to create a portrait of 21st century Britain today. We worked with five young Magunum-trained photographers who photographed visitors to Somerset House over the course of one weekend in June, and uploaded the portraits live to a dedicated Instagram account.

Follow @backgroundsproject / #backgroundsofbritain

The project launched at Generation Get Up! Weekend, a two-day programme of talks, workshops, screenings and food marking the first national Windrush Day at Somerset House.

Backgrounds is a collaboration with Create Jobs, conceived by creative director Darrell Vydelingum as part of Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, a free photography exhibition exploring what it feels to live as an immigrant, or descendant of immigrants, today.

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