An Immigrants Biscuit Tin

TT Journal, ISSUE 5, 20th January 2023

By Susan Ribeiro 

Never have I had a candid answer to the stilted question of, where are you from? Being conceived in the UK in the late 70s made me British. Had I been born in the late 80s would have made me Portuguese or Spanish, a foreign national, an ‘alien’ on British borders. By virtue of continual legislative shifts my citizenship affirmed, I still sensed I was different growing up in suburban Watford, a second-generation immigrant, a citizen of there and here. That said, when my mother unpacked her collection of biscuit tins, jammed with photographs, documents, newspaper clippings and letters from family members overseas and commenced the ritual narration of her migration to Britain, the creation of a third in-between space spanning five decades, where identity formations occurred materialised. In these moments I felt connected to my mother and comforted as the duality of my heritage was visualised. The biscuit tins have aided in piecing together the story of my family’s immigrational experiences from the Iberian Peninsula to living in Britain. 

As stories and records are interdependent, capable of acting on each other, my research takes the institution of the family archive as its primary locus and studies the position of photographs, documents and stories within it. Principally the biscuit tins are a family collection, a private space of struggle for memory, identity, resistance and justice but through my artistic practice they can also be thought of as part of a much larger history of vernacular Pan-Iberian photography discourse. 

Prompted by encounters with my mother’s archive, I have actively searched in national repositories in Britain, for traces of Iberismo, Pan-Iberian immigrational stories that align with my muddled heritage. A pastime of mine, which is on the cusp of a preoccupation is to contact heritage sites with the hopes of finding some remanence of Iberismo in Britain, in the near distant future I hope to publish the list as an artwork as thus far, all have confirmed there are no notable family collections appendaged to this community.  Currently, no heritage sites in Britain house any collections that resemble the knowledge imbued in this eclectic assortment of archival material. For now, these confectionery containers acquisitioned by my mother are the only community-based domiciliation.

An integral part of my practice and the byname of my project derives from the unruly variety of documents my mother had amassed in repurposed biscuit tins. In displacing airtight containers from their domestic design my mother, Maria had simulated a prerequisite likened to an archival repository. Storing and inadvertently documenting her immigrational experiences, she had unknowingly accumulated material of ethnographic value. With no linear structure, the collection has become a poignant reflection of how Maria mediated life in Britain as a legal ‘alien.’ This archival material is of particular interest not simply because of its huge disparity with other family collections in heritage sites like, The National Archives but because many of the state records Maria accrued have since been destroyed by the Home Office.

Maria, from Susan Ribeiro’s archive

Her collection brings visibility to an intergenerational Pan-Iberian family’s experience of immigrating to Britain and for those, like me, that seek a sense of self, I have found the necessity for Maria’s tins to be organised, curated and mined for research. Therefore, the rationale behind my creative practice was to formulate an informal archive entitled, The Immigrants Biscuit Tin Project. Presented as a conceived foundation that is dedicated to the arrangement and research of documents for formulating alternative modes of knowledge production for addressing problematic distinctions between representation, identity, history and lived experience for and of Pan-Iberian immigrants in Britain. In meshing personal and historical moments through the apparatus of an archive, I approach my practice as an archivist, family-historian, a novice semiotician and an interventionist writer of image and text.  And in so doing, I re-evaluate records, private documents and the construction of an immigrant’s identity through the lens of The Immigrants Biscuit Tin Project.

I have always had a fascination with duplication and the ability to copy what resembles or corresponds to something else. On occasion my mother has likened my attention to detail to that of a highly accomplished counterfeit artist, a critique that is always given with a sentido cariñoso, a caring sentiment and a chuckle in her voice. Originally, I thought my impulse to replicate derived from the allure of the light-induced Xerox photocopier at school and its ability to spew out iterations of latent images on clean sheets of white paper. On the other hand, it could have been formed later in the 90s as I dabbled in the alchemy of developing 35mm photographic film in makeshift darkrooms. On re-examining my mother’s collection, my aptitude to document may have been further influenced by my late maternal grandfather, a keen amateur family photographer in the 30s and a huge contributor to the biscuit tins.  Despite all these pivotal contributions to my practice the reality was that my compulsion to replicate, reproduce and duplicate was initiated by my mother’s compulsion to preserve and actively reproduce records as a mode to protect our families immigrational status, a process that had undeniably influenced my life. It, therefore, felt logical as a practice-based researcher to reenact Maria’s rigorous approach within my praxis not only as a strategy to collect knowledge but as a tribute to a mother’s unwavering commitment to her family.

My hopes are to officially form an accessible identity-based archive that will build a comprehensive picture that underscores the role that family archives have in documenting and contributing to alternative perspectives of immigrational cross-cultural experiences in Britain, with a particular focus on the Portuguese-speaking Diaspora. In offering interruptions of a chronological national history from Britain’s authoritarian past, this research is intent on promoting discussions for those living in Britain with multiple heritages such as mine.

If you are a Portuguese or Spanish immigrant and have a private collection of documents, letters, photographs be that analogue or digital or stories like that of Maria’s that you would wish to share with The Immigrants Biscuit Tin collective, please contact:

Susan Ribeiro is a British media artist, born in 1977, who lives and works in the UK.  Over the course of her practice, Ribeiro has worked within and between mediums of photography, installation and design. An avid researcher of personal, historical and state archives she thinks of herself as a Pan-Iberian cultural archivist/ artist and refers to herself as an ‘image maker.’ She is the Founder of The Immigrants Biscuit Tin Project and speaks sincerely about the experiences of being a second-generation immigrant in contemporary society. She recently (2022) completed a Masters by Research (Mres) Creative Practice at the University of Westminster, London, where she experimented with new ways to present her practice-based research in a group exhibition in London Gallery West, London.  Ribeiro’s work layers influences drawn from a private family collection of photographs, documents, collected material and stories that are both real and reimagined.  Her research represents an insiders/ outsiders view that explores themes and ideas relating to identity politics. Her work in one way or another grapples with identity and representation through the lens of history and memory.