The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the latest of a phased re-opening of the National Galleries of Scotland buildings. Much has changed since lockdown in March. The gallery has reflected on this with a small exhibition in the temporary exhibit space to the left of the entrance. It comes with a strong invitation also to view or re-visit the permanent collection and the Great Hall. You must book a timeslot online and wait outside before entering. Latecomers may have to wait or reschedule. The National Galleries of Scotland has the ‘Good to Go’ accreditation for all its venues, a reassurance that it is strictly following current public health guidelines.
You will be briefed before entering You Are Here, 2020: Stories, Portraits, Visions, that the exhibition must be viewed in a one-way anti-clockwise direction with phased entry monitored by staff. This ensures that it is never busy or bottlenecked. Each section is widely spaced to allow for physical distance.
Five portraits from the national collection frame the exhibition, alongside a weekly rotating selection of nine contributions from the public. Everyone in Scotland is invited to submit stories, portraits and visions for the future, each with a chance to be in the gallery exhibition. Over 200 pieces have been submitted to date. There’s still time to contribute your own story, portrait and vision of the future right up until 31 December 2020. This strand of the exhibition really comes into its own online as the gallery shares all the images and stories online and through social media channels.
The five main artworks are:
Iain Stewart, Tender VIII, chromogenic photographic print, 1999:
This simply depicts a gesture of offering a sweet to a child, a moment of tenderness and connection in a difficult environment. It is accompanied by other images which form a series of prints entitled Tender by one-time ECA student Iain Stewart. He shadowed two Edinburgh GPs for six months for an exhibition about public healthcare and commissioned by the gallery in 1999. Not only is the subject the NHS but also a reminder of having that physical touch connection taken away during 2020.
Emeli Sandé, 2018, oil on canvas painting by Samira Addo:
This striking new acquisition of the pop singer-songwriter is from self-taught artist Samira Addo, winner of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018. It’s a tonally exciting painting with intuitive brushwork and much better for seeing it ‘in the flesh’ and up close.
Jackie Kay, CBE, bronze bust, c.2004:
Here we can get a closer look at the sculpture of Scots Makar Jackie Kay by Michael Snowden. On a nearby video installation, the writer also recites Still (2020), a lockdown poem. A further lockdown poem, A Banquet for the Boys (2020), is transcripted directly on to the wall.
Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, 1918, bronze bust:
Better known in Serbia than here in Scotland, nowadays Dr Inglis gets the recognition she deserves for her major improvements to medical education and treatment in women’s health in the UK as well as health provisions in Europe during WWI. This sculpture by Croatian artist and Vienna Secessionist Ivan Meštrovic was gifted to the Scottish people in gratitude for the work Dr Inglis did in Serbia to create and run military hospitals there during WWI.
Man Up, 2017, colour HD video with sound:
This is a short video artwork by Edinburgh band Young Fathers and Tim Brinkhurst. Shown alongside a transcription of the artwork on the wall, this explores the complexity of modern masculinity and reads well as a poem on its own.
You Are Here, 2020: Stories, Portraits, Visions evokes the sense that we are all in this together whilst celebrating the diversity of our experiences. Many works connect through exploring identity and how it is shaped as well as the effect of the lockdown experience on our notions of identity. Or, as Samira Addo puts it:
‘portraits can engage attention, evoke emotions, and hold a level of reliability, unlike any other genre.’
After visiting the exhibition, your journey through the gallery is strictly one-way with the freedom to travel more freely around the space of each room in the permanent collection on Level Two. It’s an opportunity to visit the permanent collection or re-visit with new eyes, especially the exhibitions The Remaking of Scotland, Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860 and Heroes and Heroines, The Victorian Age. In the meantime, the gallery is re-assessing the national collection in relation to the legacies of colonialism and slavery, whilst inviting feedback from the public. This is already reflected in the text interpretation accompanying some artworks. There is also a chance to view the superb Great Hall without its furniture. Although the shop is closed, the cafe is open with no need for a reservation.
With grateful thanks to Julie Boyne for submitting this review.