The phenomenon of British citizens fleeing post-Brexit Britain has been described variously as ‘the Brexodus’ or the ‘Brexit brain drain’, as we see open-minded, talented, ambitious Brits leaving a country they no longer recognise as a home which aligns with their world view and liberal values. My ‘Brexiles’ exhibition, which has just opened in Sheffield, at The Circle Gallery, Rockingham Lane, aims to tell their stories.
This is my first solo exhibition since 2015 and will be on display until Wednesday 4 October. The exhibition features portraits of 27 ‘Brexiles’ – British citizens, living across the EU member countries, who left the UK because of Brexit. I found these 27 individuals through social media, during the pandemic, and interviewed them as part of a research project funded by the Schwarzkopf Foundation, who awarded me the title of ‘Young European of the Year’ in 2018.
My fascination with ‘Brexiles’ emerged from my own, unfulfilled desire to leave the UK in the wake of Brexit. It was also a retaliation against the Brexiters who trolled my social media posts with a refrain of ‘If you love Europe so much – why don’t you move there?’. The stupidity of that statement intrigued me enough to find out more about the group of people who had done exactly that – chosen Europe, in the face of rising nationalism and xenophobia.
It was far easier to find ‘Brexiles’ in some countries compared to others; Spain and France were especially popular destinations for British expats, probably due to their proximity to the UK and popularity of French and Spanish language tuition in UK schools. In contrast, it proved very challenging to find British expats (who were willing to participate in the project) in Hungary and Lithuania, this is because few people move to Hungary to flee nationalism where their government can be described as exactly that, and Lithuania being a very small country (in terms of geographical size and population).
Reclaiming British identity
The colour schemes of the portraits were chosen by the participants for their personal, symbolic meaning and many requested the colours of the national flag of their new home nation. I tried to ensure gender, LGBTQ+ and ethnic diversity in my research participants; I succeeded in the first two but only managed to find one, non-white Brit who had emigrated who was also willing to participate in my project. What I found especially interesting was how two of my LGBTQ+ participants requested that their portrait feature the colours of the Pride/Non-Binary flag, as this identity was so important to them to be represented.
During their interviews I asked them to discuss the experience of migration, what they missed about the UK, what they loved about their new life and the impact of Brexit on their sense of identity. Many of my Brexiles were keen to emphasise how they are patriotic, in the sense that they love certain aspects of British culture and life, generally places, landscapes, food, cultural events and people. Whereas it was the intensifying nationalist sentiment, rising xenophobia and social inequality, consumerist society and toxic political culture which had left them conflicted about their pride in this identity.
A Brexile view
The exhibition’s information booklet includes key quotes from the participants’ interviews:
“When I go back, as I get on the train at Gatwick, I feel a heaviness of a society too long under pressure to just have the normal things humans should have, like secure housing, work/life balance and enough money to enjoy themselves. The idea of being stuck behind an invisible wall with Boris Johnson in a country run by the Eton 5th form boys common room fills me with horror.”Jinpa Smith, Portugal
“My friends often ask when I’ll be coming back, but without trying to come across as arrogant, why should I choose to waste my time in a toxic and populist environment, when I could excel in my career and flourish in one of the most international cities on the continent?Olivier Trouille, Belgium
“While I knew racism and xenophobia was a thing, as a white Brit it had always been pretty abstract, but I was suddenly self-conscious speaking foreign languages in public and worried for my wife and children.”Paul Davidson, Estonia
Brexiles are a group of people frequently ignored in the debate about Brexit and my ambition for this project and resulting exhibition was to highlight the impact of Brexit on British society. My hope is that the exhibition will be exhibited in other cities across the UK and I would like to invite any local, grassroots pro-EU groups interested in hosting the exhibition and open night event to please get in touch with me: [email protected]
Advocates of change
The open night event will be held from 6 until 8pm on Friday 29 September 2023, at the Circle Gallery (33 Rockingham Lane, Sheffield, S1 4FW). There will be a drinks reception, speeches by theatre producer Lora Krasteva on her ‘Becoming British’ project, and local councillor and former MEP Shaffaq Mohammed, as well as poetry and a musical performance by myself.
The backdrop of the exhibition is influenced by the efforts of Sheffield for Europe, a non-partisan organisation dedicated to sharing information on political, legal, and social methods to counter the damage Brexit has done to the UK. The group actively organises and participates in events that focus on a European theme, conducts meetings with guest speakers, operates street stalls, organises demonstrations, and engages with local MPs, among other activities.
Krasteva is a prominent artist, cultural producer, and activist with a background in political sciences, Latin American, and European Studies. Her work looks at historically marginalised voices and challenges conventional notions of national identity. Her ‘Becoming British’ project explores and co-creates performative exhibitions, gatherings, and spaces that challenge and interrogate the concept of national identity.
Mohammed is a councillor for Ecclesall and is leader of the Sheffield Lib Dems group. He brings an additional perspective as a former MEP. Originally from Pakistan, Mohammed made Sheffield his home in 1977. He is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and has witnessed the profound changes brought about by Brexit.
As the ‘Brexiles: Portraits of a New Europe’ exhibition unfolds in Sheffield, it invites viewers to ponder the profound impacts of Brexit on individuals and the broader concept of national identity. It serves as a poignant reminder that political decisions have real and personal consequences, often etched into the faces and stories of those who must navigate their aftermath. This captivating display is a testament to the power of art in giving voice to the silenced and telling the stories that need to be heard.