Steve McQueen has said he found curating his latest exhibition “hugely much more satisfying” than shooting any of his feature films.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker, 50, photographed thousands of London’s Year Three pupils, in traditional-style class snaps with their teachers, for a “visual portrait of citizenship”.
McQueen, raised in west London, described the work, which has gone on display at Tate Britain, as a gift to London, to reward the capital “giving so much back to you”.
More than 600 children are expected to visit the gallery each day to see their portraits, which hang in the cavernous Duveen Galleries.
The 12 Years A Slave director said he felt especially “passionate” about the work because it was chance to invite children from minority backgrounds into London’s public galleries.
Speaking at a preview, he said making a feature film and creating Year Three were “similar”.
“Yes, there is a comparison,” he said.
“But for me, it is just hugely much more satisfying.
“To be a Londoner right now… often as an artist you can be a vessel for something.
“You are giving this thing over to London but London is giving so much back to you.
“It is almost like a conversation. It’s a two-way thing. It’s not about me or the project. It is about us. That is what this project is about. Who we are.
“I’m the person pushing the button doing it. But it is about us. A few words have been thrown around, like the word diversity – I’m going to vomit. It’s us.”
The photographs capture pupils aged seven and eight, a “milestone” age at which they “become more conscious of a much bigger world beyond their immediate family”.
McQueen recalled visiting the National Portrait Gallery as a schoolboy and noticing the only black person there was the guard.
He said: “I am passionate about this work, particularly this morning, just because I remember going to the National Portrait Gallery and the only persons I saw who were black were the guards. I remember walking round.
“And when I went to art school, that was my liberation, art school. That was when I could actually achieve what I wanted to achieve. My goals, to realise myself.
“To offer that opportunity up to every single kid and make it go in whatever direction it could go in.
“If it’s literature, if it is science, if it is fashion or whatever, even accountancy.
“Whatever it is, creativity is very important. It makes better human beings.”
Turner Prize-winner McQueen invited all of London’s Year Three school pupils to take part, but ended up with 76,000 children, about two thirds of London’s seven to eight-year-olds.
The portraits are also on display in 613 locations on roadsides, railways and underground stations.
This outdoor work is a collaboration with Artangel, known for producing unusual art in unexpected places.
Artangel co-director James Lingwood said Year Three showed how in London, where some 300 languages are spoken, schoolchildren “speak a common language, the language of the smile”.
Year Three runs from November 12 2019 to May 3 2020 while Artangel’s billboards will display until November 18.