by Charisa Gunasekera, Chasm Intern
There is something inexplicably and achingly familiar about London in the summertime. The sunlight illuminates the creamy froth of the clouds above. The trees are in beautiful bloom. Petals drift all over the city, soft on the ever-present wind under a drifting network of patchwork blue. While London bustles past just outside the gates, the city’s parks offer a bed of green-space to settle on for hours and hours. The birds sing. Spread all around, there are so many different types of people enjoying the same indulgences of this amazing city. This is London.
Having previously spent two years of university navigating these familiar winding streets, I assumed a new perspective embarking upon my time writing here. I’ve never lived in London in the summer. When I first arrived here back in 2013, I had noticed the distinctive nature of the discussion surrounding the changing British identity in London today. It particularly comes through in places like the British National Portrait Gallery. British portraits, with their mysteries of unachievable wealth in halos of golden light and gilded frames, obscure the past with learnt assumptions about art. There is an intentional upper-class focus and adherence of beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, structure, status, and taste. This cultural mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident: existence is a shared experience, something we all should relate to. Yet, much like British culture viewed from a distance—without immediate experience—these portraits are exclusive, painting the country’s past politically.
Undoubtedly, London is markedly different from any other culture I have encountered. I used my study abroad experience during university to study the distinctive nuance of British culture here. What I learned is that not the city that is inspiring; it is the people. It is not the portraits; it’s their faces. When you sit in an art museum, it is the idea that every subject existed, once upon a time, and that they felt the whole spectrum of human experience, that overwhelms you. They each had stories, hearts that once beat. They felt a multitude and, yet, history in colour holds them frozen in one exhibition for the rest of time.
This is a feeling you get in most cities. Your way of seeing is constantly challenged. You swerve: it shifts. There are so many people to meet, so many painted faces blurring past you in the street. London is a gallery in itself. Your travel is flexible; your viewpoint is fluid.