The work of 49 artists from 18 nationalities who have made Britain their home is about to tour the country. Virginia Matthews reports

That's the view of German-born Andrea Schlieker, one of two curators of this year's British Art Show, which will tour Gateshead, Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol later this year for an event that has been staged every five years since its launch by the Arts Council in 1979.

The 49 artists featured in the 24-venue show, which kicks off in September, have been chosen from a possible 500 artists living and working in this country. They include a sculptor from Guyana, a Bulgarian video artist and a Macedonian film-maker - just three of the 18 nationalities represented in the show.

Schlieker believes that London rivals New York as the most creative city in the world. "It's a true émigré and cosmopolitan city, particularly in the artistic community, and a real magnet for artists of all genres and backgrounds. World-famous art colleges such as the Royal College of Art, St Martin's and The Slade, continue to be a cradle for some of the most interesting artists working today and the fantastic reputations of these London schools continue to attract students from around the globe."

The self-styled "Olympics" of the contemporary arts scene, the British Art Show encompasses the key developments in genres such as fine art, sculpture, film-making, video, and performance art. The last show, in 2000, featured work from David Hockney as well as newcomer artists.

While multiculturalism is not, says Schlieker, a "conscious theme" of this year's show, the artists featured, she says, "appear to share a number of concerns that could be described as a mixture of the local and global, rather than being purely nationally-focussed."

One such artist is black sculptor Hew Locke, who expresses an interest in the notion of Britain as an island. "There are those Britons who would like to pull up the drawbridge and refuse entry to any more people, but the truth is, this country is really only an island in the geographical sense. In every other way, the concerns of the entire world - issues such as Iraq, 9/11 and asylum-seeking - are the concerns of Britain too, and there's no point in trying to pretend that what happens in the world doesn't affect us."

Born in Edinburgh in 1959 and brought up in post-independence Guyana, Locke's sculptures of the Queen and others have been called "monumental, trashy and baroque". The Royal Family is a constant theme of his work, but his treatment of them is far from subservient. His Black Queen of 2004 - which sees the monarch festooned with guns and grenades - is a symbol of his disquiet over the Iraq War and reflects, he says, his ambivalence about the entire institution of monarchy.

"I wouldn't describe myself as anti or pro-monarchy, but I would admit to finding it strange that I am officially, as my passport puts it, 'a subject of the Queen' with all that that signifies. Growing up in Guyana, I discovered how powerful an image the Queen is to many people, even anti-Royalists who profess not to care about the monarchy. My work seeks to portray that sheer power."

Another of Locke's sculptures, King Creole, is a voodoo-inspired version of another British icon. Based on the House of Commons' coat of arms, it features a skull and cross-bones and a giant funeral wreath, complete with plastic chrysanthemums, English roses and cannabis leaves. "King Creole is King Death for the buccaneering, piratical attitudes that have characterised British history, as well as the cut and thrust of Commons debates and the real wars that can result from it," says the artist.

What appeals to Locke most about life in contemporary Britain is its diversity. "You can be Bengali and British at the same time, you can speak one language at home and another at school or work and that is largely accepted. I like to think that being British includes being tolerant of these strong multicultural strains in our society, but I fear that there is also a tension underneath the apparent tolerance."

Breda Beban, born in Novi Sad, Serbia in 1952, was, she says, "a child of Tito". Growing up under Communist rule in Macedonia and Croatia, before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, she was taught basic feature film-making techniques while at primary school. She earned her degree in painting at the Academy of Fine Art in Zagreb, Croatia.

As an artist who loves New York but considers London to be home, the years of civil war in her homeland left her feeling "ethnically impure", she says. Much of her work explores the theme of past and present and how it affects our feelings of identity.

"I was happy as a citizen of Yugoslavia and loved the fact that the regime was committed to multiculturalism, but when that system fell apart, it turned many of us into refugees who are confused about our nationality," she says. "I love the fact that in London, the notion of Britishness is so relaxed; but I can't help but notice that the first question I am always asked is where I come from. In New York, where everyone is an immigrant perhaps, people are more interested in what you do, than what your passport says about your background."

While Beban finds the entrenched British class system impenetrable - "under Communism, class distinction was avoided at all costs" - she believes that Britain is currently seeking out a new national identity; one that is more appropriate for the current millennium.

"I like to think that when Britain does come up with its new, distinctive personality, it will be one that is neither rooted in the obsessions of Victorian England, nor the current so-called 'war on terror' that has made questions of nationality so narrow, in a way." In the show, Beban's film; Walk of Three Chairs, depicts the artist floating down the Danube on a raft, accompanied by a gypsy folk band. Filmed at the point where the Balkans and the continent of Europe are thought to meet, the film shows green trees and holiday cottages on one side and the contrasting, industrial landscape of Belgrade on the other. The artist says that her film is a visual metaphor for the recent, turbulent history of her country.

"As someone who has been exiled from my own homeland so many times, I feel that the only certainty or continuity that can be found in life, or even in one's national identity, is to be found in discontinuity."

The British Art Show tours Gateshead, Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol from 24 September, 2005 to 17 September, 2006. For more information, visit www.hayward.org.uk

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