Artists and Empire at the Tate

Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:

At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.

This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:

In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.

A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.

So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:

painting1‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.

So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.

But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):

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Gill, c 1945

They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)

I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.

largeA picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.

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2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of  these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.

In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.

Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West
Portrait of Banks (1773) by Benjamin West

The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765
George Stubbs, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians by George Stubbs, 1764–1765

3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.

Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
Desperate heroism … Charles Edwin Fripp’s The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1885. Photograph: Council of the National Army Museum
General Gordon's Last Stand - George William Joy
General Gordon’s Last Stand – George William Joy

There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.

'The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis', 1792.
‘The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis’, 1792. Oil on canvas by Robert Home (1752-1834), c1793

Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.

4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.

5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.

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Yoruba artist, Nigeria, Figure of Queen Victoria, c.1898, Wood.

I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.

6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire

Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.

One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).

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I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.

Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.

I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.

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