Adam Woodhouse is typical of the sort of up-and-coming artistic wonders who are helping to invigorate the UK art scene. He is skilled in 3D and 2D art and motion graphics. He is a featured artist on the Adobe Design Gallery and has worked for some major international brands.
“I didn’t go to university or college to study graphic design; I don’t regret this, although it has taken a little bit of time and patience to get to the level I am at now,” Adam told the online art magazine Digital Arts.
Brett Wilkinson is another artist who is moving up in the UK creative industry. His work has been recognised by Amelia’s Magazine and Computer Arts. Bret has done work for the Big Chill Festival and Panasonic and has exhibited his art internationally. His work has been featured in several publications, including Taschen, Idn, Page One and Ginco and he directs annual design events at Inkthis. Digital Arts have pegged both artists as being among the “hottest new illustrators for 2009”.
Apart from their love for art, Adam and Brett have something in common. They’re both self taught talents. There are lots of brilliant self-taught artists all over the UK and they happen to be in illustrious company, including George Cruikshank, the gifted etcher, artist and caricaturist; artist and book illustrator Paul Doré; Scottish artist Jack Vettriano; Irish painter and illustrator, James O’Connor; Italian artist, Matania and many more.
Peculiarly, however, the UK Home Office recently took the decision to restrict the entry of a foreign artist into the UK on the grounds that he does not have a university degree.
He is Nikhil Singh, an artist from South Africa and the illustrator of the recently-launched graphic gothic-fantasy novel Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers (Walker Books). His work has received rave reviews in numerous quarters, including the Metro, Financial Times and Sunday Express. It was also praised by comic legend Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta and a man cited by the BBC as a comic book writer that is “revered across the world as being one of the most creative forces in the industry.”
“A wonderfully imaginative and stylish piece of work and a perfect example of the adventurous new directions that comic books should be taking in the future,” says Moore.
“A beautiful-looking graphic novel… The artwork is gorgeous; intricate and stylised, with flowing Art Nouveau lines reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha” raved the science-fiction, fantasy and horror magazine SFX.
But despite all the praise being heaped on Singh, the Home Office has steadfastly rejected his appeals for the renewal of his visa to allow him to continue working in the UK.
It turns out that Britain has begun implementing its new points-based immigration system in place of the previous regulations. On June 30, 2008 provisions for leave to enter and leave to remain were discontinued for five immigrant categories; business persons, innovators, investors, writers, composers and artists and self-employed lawyers. According to the UK Immigration Directorate Instructions (IDIs) “While it is no longer possible for individuals to apply for leave to enter or remain in any of these categories, it is still possible for those who have sufficient leave in these categories to apply for indefinite leave to remain.”
To facilitate this, five new categories have been introduced under the new points-based system:
Writers, artists and composers seeking leave to enter or remain in the UK to work are now required to apply under the Tier 1 category of ‘highly skilled migrants, entrepreneurs, and innovators’.
Nikhil Singh applied accordingly for leave to remain but was informed that he does not qualify for a ‘highly skilled’ migrant visa because of “lack of education”. He was even made to take an English language test although he is quite proficient in the language.
Presently, he is in South Africa where, for the past 6 months he has been suffering agonizingly through the Home Office application process. He couldn’t even attend his book launch, a sell-out event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London held on 24th October – all because he has been deemed “under-qualified.” He had attempted to obtain a short-term holiday visa so that he could attend the book launch and then return to South Africa to put together documents for a more long-term visa, but his request was denied. Meantime, Singh has lost his London apartment and has not seen his girlfriend of seven years for the past five months. To date he has spent over £2,000 appealing the Home Office application process, but so far his reapplications have been rebuffed.
The Home Office ruling in the Nikhil Singh case has serious implications for professional international artists seeking to work in the UK, particularly those from poor and developing countries. Those whose visas have expired are now required to reapply for a Tier One ‘highly skilled migrant’ visa which, evidently, cannot be obtained without a degree or similar proof of tertiary education – never mind how skilled they are or that they have distinguished themselves in the art world. If they hadn’t been aware of it, by now they should be getting the message loud and clear; in the UK some artists are more equal than others.
Not surprisingly, Singh’s predicament has caused outrage in art and literary circles.
Paul Gravett, Director of Comica Festival and author of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life said: “The refusal of Nikhil Singh’s application for a Highly Skilled Worker Visa, resulting in his being unable to attend his own book launch at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, is short-sighted and prejudiced towards the graphic novel medium, and plainly ignores his exceptional merits. One look at the extraordinary craftsmanship of his illustrative contributions to the acclaimed graphic novel Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers would convince anyone that Nikhil is not only “highly skilled” but a truly visionary artist of international standing.”
Nikhil Singh himself is equally chagrinned. “This new legislature speaks poorly of a country previously renowned as an international nexus of arts and culture. The fact that so many academics and artists are being refused entry for such petty reasons only weakens England’s cultural backbone. The new immigration laws have insinuated an atmosphere of creative policing that is entirely out of character with the various professions it has effected; trades whose universal spirit of free thinking, regardless of nationality, have now been subtly degraded by the very powers which should be nurturing it,” said Singh.
On Sunday 6th September, Cristina Winsor, a US citizen and artist arrived in London to visit friends and take part in a free five-day art festival dubbed The Meaning of Art held at The Foundry in East London. She was detained for 9 hours in a detention centre at Heathrow airport and subsequently escorted on an outbound plane back to New York by armed security guards. She was kicked out because she was carrying two small paintings under her arm, which she planned to exhibit at the festival and also hoped to sell. She had offered to leave the paintings at the airport, to no avail.
“The immigration officials told me that selling my work was illegal without a business visa, and took me to the detention centre for further questioning,” Winsor told British comic news magazine Downthetubes.net.
The Manifesto Club has, meanwhile, joined in the protest against the Home Office’s treatment of Nikhil Singh. It’s a UK-based group whose members have dedicated themselves to campaigning against attempts by governments to unfairly restrict “free movement across borders, free expression and free association”.
They recently launched a petition against the Home Office’s restrictions with a letter in the Observer and an article in the Guardian. The group has also documented hundreds of cases where the new immigration regulations have caused arts events to be cancelled.
According to The Manifesto Club, “The Home Office recently introduced new restrictions on international artists and academics visiting the UK for talks, temporary exhibitions, concerts or artists’ residencies. Visitors now have to submit to a series of arduous and expensive procedures to get their visas, and then more bureaucratic controls when they are in the UK. Already a series of concerts and residencies have been cancelled … Together we call for these parochial and suspicious regulations to be reconsidered, and affirm the vital contribution made by global artists and scholars to UK cultural and intellectual life.”
The club’s campaign has reportedly won support from artists, musicians, gallery directors, academics and students from all around the world.
According to the UK Home Office, “our points-based system for migration and our plans for earned citizenship are making our immigration policy fairer, more transparent and more effective”. Moreover, they say, it’s an “objective system which enables potential migrants to assess their likelihood of making a successful application” and will “help to reduce the number of failed applications.”
Judging by the stipulations for obtaining “highly-skilled” migrant visas (excerpt below) the process looks fairly straightforward. Except that Nikhil Singh’s troubles show that there’s a lot more in the mortar than the pestle, and the road ahead promises to be very rough indeed for international artists – people driven by the same urges that propelled millions of British migrants to leave their homeland to colonize India, China, Africa, the Caribbean, the North American mainland, Australia, New Zealand; almost half of the globe –the desire for a new life and new opportunities and the chance to realize their dreams.
Writers and composers take note. The going may well get rough for you too.
Don’t miss my interview with Nikhil Singh in my next post!