Guests came together for the unveiling of fifteen photographic portraits by Robert Taylor, alongside an opening poem by alumnus Musa Okwonga

The new exhibition is one of the outcomes of the College’s Working Group on Race and Equality, which met during 2020/21 to learn more of the lived experiences of St John’s BAME Community. Robert Taylor’s fifteen black-and-white portraits offer an opportunity to shine a light on – and give voice to – members of our staff, students and alumni. His vision of the College’s ethnic diversity, and the sensitive dialogue into which he entered with the sitters, give us a set of images and voices that offer us much to reflect on.

President Maggie Snowling began the evening by acknowledging both the progress made in the representation of BAME students at St John’s, and the work left to be done, before introducing the photographer. In a poignant speech, Robert explained that one of his main aims in photographs celebrating diversity is to ‘try to accent the beautiful luxury for my sitters in being considered ordinarily human, legitimate, relatable, and not the exotic embodiment of a set of identity-related problems or issues’.


A selection of photographs of past generations of diverse St John’s students sits alongside the portrait exhibition, curated by the St John’s and the Colonial Past project. Dr Mishka Sinha, Research Associate on the project, said the idea came about because ‘as we discussed it, it became more and more important […] that we find some way of making visible the fact that […] there is an identity of this College that goes back to a past that owes a debt to diversity. The idea was to make visible some of that past’.

Finally, Musa Okwonga (1998, Jurisprudence) officially opened the exhibition with a reading of his beautiful poem ‘This Magical Gallery’, written for the occasion. Musa explained that he ‘wanted to write a piece which, if someone handed you a piece of paper, and this was written on it, the moment you stepped through the door of St John’s […] you’d feel equally welcome’. We are delighted to be able to print the poem below, alongside a video of Musa's speech and reading.

This Magical Gallery

That opening moment at St. John’s,

When you as new students or staff cross the border of the porters’ lodge,

You all take lifelong ownership of a new home.

Regardless of your hardships, colour, culture or faith

This is a place where the table of your future can be laid.

This college is just as much for Ukachi and Ali as it is for Jones and Smith;

Whether your name is Anderson or Mohandas,

These walls and lawns are for you.

It is just as much your right, when woken for lectures before dawn,

To yawn over breakfast in its halls.

So as you arrive,

With the happy rattle of your suitcase wheels

as they glide up St. Giles for the first time,

You can imagine that, one day,

You may gaze out at us from one of these glorious portraits;

In the meantime, you will always belong in our crowd,

Your face, a proud part of this magical gallery.

-          Musa Okwonga


A heartfelt thank you to Robert Taylor, Musa Okwonga, the sitters and all those who helped us celebrate such a wonderful set of portraits.

The physical exhibition has free admission in the Kendrew Barn Gallery and will be open until 3 February. You can find more information here.

For those further afield, we also have a virtual exhibition of the photographs accompanied by the text written by each of the sitters on our website here. You can also view the opening speeches in their entirety on YouTube here