Category Archives: Exhibitions

1917: Art of the Russian Revolution at the RA and Tom Hollander in Travesties

This was accidentally a London weekend full of references to Lenin and 1917 — both in the (planned) visit to the art of the Russian Revolution exhibition at the RA, and in the (impromptu) attendance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. (Tom Hollander in the lead as the aging Henry Carr! Brilliant! British Consul in Zürich in 1917, when that city was host to Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin! Amazing!)

Here we have Lenin as the ideal:

Isaak Brodsky, V.I.Lenin and a Demonstration, 1919. Oil on canvas. 90 x 135 cm. The State Historical Museum, Moscow Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO. The State Historical Museum, Moscow.

As a human being he did not live up to this ideal, no one could. I am in agreement with those who tire of hearing (leftist) people cite him chapter and verse. I loved Stoppard’s gleeful Brechtian treatment of him through consul Henry Carr’s fading memories. Loved the brilliant physical acting of Forbes Masson as Lenin (even at this grand moment when he is being called back to Russia) tossing his beruffed head when dismissed in a huff. Sticking his neck through a window to sing. Working hard at the library writing his book. Loved the socialist burlesque scene, the whole of the witty repartee, the sudden hilarity. The limericks. I admire Lenin. I am still troubled by him because I never did agree with his vision for achieving the revolution. Because he was conservative in many ways, his taste in art and music among them, and he had no right to stamp down on the wild flourishing of creativity that the revolution both inspired and made possible.

I think his praxis arguably set the stage for what happened in Russia under Stalin.  And of course Stalin was inexcusable, unforgiveable, unforseeable, caused the death of millions. He betrayed everything the revolution stood for.

But goddamn, wasn’t the Russian Revolution glorious for a while? Didn’t it end the terror of the Okhrana and desperate lack of nutrition/education/health care/housing/women’s rights/right-to-anything-at-all-especially a decent life or a dream for the future that comprised existence for so many existing, just existing, under the tsar? Didn’t it open up conversations about democracy and the rights of workers, women, ‘colonised subjects’, writing, art, space travel, architecture? Didn’t it go beyond survival to start thinking about the meaning of a full life for all and create a moment when suddenly the whole world stopped and wondered if that were possible?

Yes, yes it did. We still fight for that possibility. People all over the world have been inspired by it. Still believe that there is an alternative. Still believe that revolution doesn’t lead inexorably to Stalinism. Surely the question becomes how do we strive to reach it without this streak of authoritarianism emerging through our struggle — an authoritarianism that only mirrors what we face. How dare that be forgotten by those who are comfortable in an ever-more unjust world full of hunger and want and bombs falling. To collapse revolution itself into Stalinism is fairly intellectually sloppy, but that was much of the message I received from the exhibition’s written commentary (as opposed to the art itself). Another blogger, whose beliefs run rather counter to mine as far as I understand them, seems to have got something of the same message:

The show arrives, I think, at a particularly timely moment, when artists here in the West have fallen in love all over again with the idea of supposedly avant-garde art as a vehicle for promoting supposedly leftist political causes. As such, the event at the R.A. offers a spectrum of what can only be described as awful warnings.
Restless Revolutionaries: A Timely Look At Russian Art By Edward Lucie-Smith

I’m not quite sure what that means exactly, staring at it doesn’t help. I’m not sure if the awful warnings are for artists to beware left politics because that leads straight to the gulag (as if art weren’t always political already), or that those fighting for a better world should avoid the avant-garde at all costs.  (I’m rather sure that’s not what she’s saying, but makes me laugh all the same.) There’s a similar dire warning of something or other in the Guardian. Do not celebrate this art it says. It rather turns my stomach.

To me, this exhibition rather avoided a full understanding of those early years, being rather too full of phrases expressing sentiments like this one:

Many Russian artists, philosophers and writers were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.

I lie, that was the most extraordinary of the sentences the exhibition exhibited.

As if the poor had not been systematically shut out from beauty and grace in the previous centuries of exploitation. As if the artists on display here were backward looking. As if they were not propelled by excitement of what suddenly became possible with the overthrow of a violently repressive aristocratic order. As if that violently repressive order did not underpin the ‘beauty and charm’ for a limited few in old Russia. As if the true tragedy of revolutionary Russia was not the immense hope and promise which flourished, only to be crushed in what was not an inexorable process sparked from the moment Russia dared dream of a true revolution, but something rather more complicated. A complex historical process, just as the Bolsheviks and their part in a wider revolutionary movement was  complex, full of contradiction as they themselves were full of contradiction.

I suppose we were sat in Burlington House in the West End. Heart of the Empire. What did I expect.

Anyway.

The period leading up to the revolution was full of struggle and heady new ideas full of what was possible, and then it came and what artists created was extraordinary. How could the art of the exhibition not be most wonderful? The inspiration for the exhibition no less exciting:

Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, we will mark the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

Fantastic…and indeed, one of my favourite rooms was that of Malevich recreated from photographs of the exhibition of 1932 ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, with his white architectural forms and brilliant faceless farmers (his nod to the demand that he be more ‘representational’ — I share the frustration at such a demand. In the here and now the frames have all been reworked to a plain Ikea style, though the picture of the original exhibit gives a sense of the different feel of it).

Malevich Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932
The Kazimir Malevich room at the 1932 exhibition, Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic
Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism Supremus, c. 1915. Oil on canvas. 80.3 x 80 cm. Tate: Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1978 Photo © Tate, London 2016.

Then we discovered the Suprematists made food coupons! Amazing. We saw Kandinsky, one of my very favourite artists, The Blue Crest (1917):

Oil on canvas. 133 x 104 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Another favourite, Marc Chagall. The painting description notes how Chagall was inspired by his wife pictured here, and said she floated above all of his work. How wonderful:

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016,

This exudes the happiness of those early days.

They were showing excerpts from Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and other clips including a manic one from Eisenstein showing thick and disturbingly spurting milk all over peasant hands and faces.

I especially loved the mixture of paintings, posters, ceramics, textiles and film. I mean, could there be anything more awesome than the phrase ‘agitational porcelain’? Followed by Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet?

Konstantin Yuon, New Planet, 1921

Another room that contained El Lissitzky’s design for a new apartment, rebuilt here in all of its streamlined glory. I know Owen Hatherly disapproved, writing

This reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s putative design for a flat in Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building, made for the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has a similar discomfort. Lissitzky’s room wasn’t laid out in real space when the building was constructed, between 1928 and 1930; he made a photomontage to show how the duplex flats of this collective apartment building could be furnished.

I see his point, it almost looks shabby hovering in cardboard over the gleaming parquet, but I rather loved it.

The textiles were awesome, like Andrey Golubev’s Red Spinner.

Andrey Golubev, Red spinner, 1930. Cotton Print, direct printing chintz. 17.5 x 27 cm. The Burilin Ivanovo Museum of Local History Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO.

Pavel Filonov — how did I not know Filonov before this? How was he not in Janson’s History of Art, which continues to reverberate through my life with wonder as I finally get to see the originals of those pictures I only ever dreamed of?

Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat – Pavel Filonov

But he wasn’t there. Nor was Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya’s cool glass paintings — This lovely thing Peace to the Sheds, War to the Palaces. How much did I love that?

Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya, Propaganda glass “Peace to the Sheds, War on the Palaces”, 1919-21. Oil on glass, 40 x 53.5 cm

To end…Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a model glider that was … impossible to say it was my favourite thing in this exhibition full of wonderful things, but. Well. Wondrous.

So to go from this to Stoppard’s Travesties was pretty awesome.

Apollo Theatre

I knew all about Vienna in 1900 but had no idea what was going down in Zürich in 1917, even though I have chased Lenin in Krakow and elsewhere in Europe. Just a way to explore the city. I chased Joyce in Dublin and Paris. I’ve never chased Tzara, however, despite having chased Aragon and Breton. If I go to Zürich I will start. Of course I will go.

Still, how lucky I am to have been able to see the gallery, these paintings, and then rest my weary feet here, in the eagle’s nest. The only time I love gilded anything is in the theatre. The more there, the better.

Apollo Theatre

And this wasn’t even everything we saw in London. I wanted to say more about Stoppard, but think I will have to read the screenplay. And write more later perhaps.

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From Automata to Robots at the Science Museum

A crazy, packed weekend in London, that involved the launch of the 4th issue of Salvage and meeting Andreas Malm (and friends, lots of friends), catching up with my friend Tucker who just passed his viva with no corrections, The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum and much more… and still there was much left undone, friends not seen, stones left unturned.

Still.

Robots. Pretty awesome.

Robots

From the exhibit description:

Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.

It did make me realise that the closer we get to actually making robots real, the less I am fascinated by them. Really it is the old automata and clockwork things I most love. It opened with old clocks, and this, on the subject of orreries:

Possessing a model of the universe became a mark of politeness and respectability in the new, rational world of the 18th Century.

I almost laughed out loud. As I did seeing this:

Robots

An incredible and absurdly intricate automaton which they called ‘rose engine’ lathe created about 1750 — this produced a small complicated pattern cut into a round piece of wood. The exhibit notes it was made for someone wealthy – no shit.

I spent a while staring trying to work out where they could add another flourish of metal.

But even better was this automaton monk, made in Germany or Spain about 1560:

Robots

Robots

This monk prayed, walking across a tabletop while moving his lips, raising a crucifix and rosary, and beating his breast in contrition. He was built as an offering on behalf of King Phillip II of Spain, in thanks for his son’s recovery from a bad injury.

Just one of a whole collection of wonderful (and absurd) Catholic automata, that I suppose given the current state of catholic decorations for the home should hardly surprise me:

Robots

In this crucifix above, Jesus’s head would roll from side to side and shed wooden tears of blood while the Mary’s and other mourners raised their arms up to him.

They had this amazing, tiny, mechanical spider

Robots

They had the wondrous Silver Swan finished in 1773, originally found in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, and with an internal mechanism by John Joseph Merlin:

Robots

Robots

These little silver fish swim up and down when the mechanism is in motion, and the swan endlessly succeeds in catching them, releasing them (you can watch it here, I am sad we did not see it in motion):

Robots

But on to the real robots. Maria, from Metropolis, happiness:

Robots

Tin wonders:

Robots

Robots

Cygan, George and Eric (Britain’s first robot, rebuilt here):

Robots

These mad composites of plastic and metal and wood and wire:

Robots

And on to a present that is feeling like the future:

Robots

Robots

In chatting over what we had seen, I realised Mark had the same nostalgia I did walking through the space for the utterly amazing Cosmonauts exhibition, which is the last thing we saw there. Not even robots could displace the memories of awe and wonder. But it was pretty awesome.

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Strange Worlds: A splendid celebration of Angela Carter

We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.

She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.

It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.

From the website:

A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.

In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.

Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.

One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.

A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).

She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.

I loved Di Oliver‘s ‘The Fairy Tale‘ as well:

Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.

Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.

Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…

 

There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:

Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:

Ana Maria Pacheco The Banquet, 1985. Sculpture, polychromed wood 183 x 400 x 250 cm | 6ft x 13ft 1½ x 8ft 2½ in

 

I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:

The Blue Circus 1950 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by the artist 1953 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N06136

The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:

Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes

I am an Amateur of Velocipedes 1941 Leonora Carrington 1917-2011 Purchased 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11910

Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:

Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.

I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.

And then of course Corinna Sargood‘s work, both the oils and the linocuts…

This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:

It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.

Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.

At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf

He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink

My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes

But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –

Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood

But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe

To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone

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The Macdonald and Mackintosh House, Glasgow

 Macdonald & Mackintosh house

Macdonald and Mackintosh House

I’ve loved this building since before I knew who Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) even were. Glasgow Boys and Whistler inside. Almost as great as heading to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law and on to the pub with the incredible Mitch Miller and getting my own copy of Nothing is Lost. To be discussed further, but the coolest thing I’ve seen in forever. You could own it too.

Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery

Beyond Caravaggio – a wonderful exhibition, though I wanted more paintings by Caravaggio and more, and more. Because it was incredible to see this after having just read Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.

To see Caravaggio’s work, the paintings themselves… They are stunning, the brushwork is invisible creating pieces so luminous they almost glow. They are bigger than I had expected them, so when I stepped forward everything shifted. The figures emerged from the darkness, fingers stretched towards me from the canvas. The scenes enveloped me. Jostling crowds behind me could almost be forgotten (and I may have to beg their forgiveness, but I never was so rude to stand right in front). I realised too, that these paintings must have been even more wondrous in that first decade of the 17th Century, imagine them candlelit, and without the bloating I sometimes feel of having all art immediately available at the search of the internet to create a jostle of periods and wonders so that novelty is hard to come by.

No wonder Caravaggio had the impact that he did, no wonder that so many copied his style – this exhibition was full of truly inspired examples of that. Orazio Gentileschi, his daughter Artemisia, my other favourite Jusepe de Ribera.

Caravaggio remains apart from the wealth of talent that innovated with his use of darkness and light, not just for the power and skill of his work, but for the common faces bearing their lives in the lines of their skin, the stances that reveal their character, the gestures and the spaces they create that invite you into the paintings. The rips in the sleeves — I wanted to reach out to trace the torn fabric in Supper at Emmaus, itching for a needle and thread. There is also the extraordinary beauty of the object, the crystal glasses and decanters, the baskets of fruit that are incredible perfection of detail. They were unexpected, despite having read of them, seen the reproductions.

Caravaggio supper-at-emmaus-1024x728

The poverty, the dirt encrusted around fingernails and into hands. Caravaggio’s own hand, none too clean, appears in the Taking of Christ, thrusting the lantern above the grouping, his face staring a bit wildly, beetled brows and he has done himself no favours – but impossible to guess at his emotion beyond curiosity. Seeing this as a picture on the screen hides the way that details leap out at you, how much you can see emerging from the darkness…

the_taking_of_christ-caravaggio_c-1602

Caravaggio’s commissions were so often religious, he had little choice in his subjects, yet he clearly felt deeply that these men and women surrounding Christ were poor, old, sick, faltering, doubtful, poor. Their feet bare and tired.

Caravaggio was also a painter of intense violence, matter-of-factly inflicted here upon John the Baptist, a curious, complex expression of Salome’s.

caravaggio Salome receives the head of john the baptist

There was one enormous surprise – Cecco. Also from the town of Caravaggio, and Caravaggio’s model, housemate, probably lover, the one who stayed with him until that last flight to Malta (and I imagine that scene of farewells, driven undoubtedly by Caravaggio’s ambitions for a knighthood and the unwillingness of the Colonnas to sponsor him alongside Caravaggio into the very closed society of the Knights of Malta). Nowhere does Graham-Dixon mention, I am almost certain, that Cecco too was a gifted painter. Suddenly their relationship shifted, a collegiality and a greater touch of equality shapes it.

Cecco del Caravaggio; A Musician (Conjurer); English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-musician-conjurer-144112
Cecco del Caravaggio; A Musician (Conjurer); English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-musician-conjurer-144112

He still remains the laughing boy of Caravaggio’s lighter paintings in my mind — not part of the exhibition sadly, though Mario Minniti appears in Boy Bitten By a Lizard. But here Cecco is the model for a youthful John the Baptist:

John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram), c. 1602
John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram), c. 1602

Not so surprising as Cecco’s paintings were that the luminous works which draw on Caravaggio’s influence from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, almost all use the chiaroscuro but with rich cloth, wealthy patrons. Many of them copied his two paintings of cheating – the card shark and the gypsy. I was sad they were unable to bring these paintings by Caravaggio to be part of this temporary exhibition. But the small touches seemed absent from the paintings inspired by Caravaggio’s. The humanity, the necessity, the feeling that the next meal requires winning.

Caravaggio the-cardsharps

Perhaps this is why Jusepe’s work stood out so much to me, though his works were all religious in nature. This one was extraordinary

Jusepe de Ribera, (1591-1652) Saint Onuphrius, late 1620s
Jusepe de Ribera, (1591-1652) Saint Onuphrius, late 1620s

As was this beautiful painting of Susana and the Elders from Artemisia Gentileschi

susanna artemisia gentileschiI loved the exhibition. I will end on one of the more beautiful of Caravaggio’s paintings, one of a series of John the Baptist in the wilderness. It lingers with you as you leave the final room for the hum of the National Gallery

michelangelo_merisi_called_caravaggio_-_saint_john_the_baptist_in_the_wilderness_-_google_art_project

 

Navajo Nation to Aztec Ruins, New Mexico

Before leaving Tuba City, we went to the museum right next to our hotel, one of my favourite stops on this trip.

Navajo Interactive Museum

The Navajo Interactive Museum shares some of the Navajo’s own history. It is the first place I have ever been that does not try to whitewash the history of conquest. It does not shy away from how people were killed, enslaved. It tells of the forced march, relocation, return. The immense loss. Grief. It shows how much has been saved, how custom and belief are not things of the past but of the present. It shared versions of the creation. Methods of weaving, the sheep that are the sources of wool. The building of hogans and some of their spiritual meanings. It is divided by the four directions, reclaims history for its own people, and offers it as a gift to us.

From one of the signs:

Indigenous languages are holistic, fluently expressing intrinsic human relationships with everything. Navajos believe that their language is a spiritual gift from the Holy People, for it connects them directly to the entire universe. It is a language of webs and motion, relationships and process, not of nouns and objectivity.

I have been thinking so much about language and patterns of thought, the limitations of science and how perhaps it is built into the English language itself. Spanish too, but just knowing two languages helps you understand language’s limits. There is still so much I cannot express, I wish that I had been honored to speak such an indigenous language. It is not hard to see why conquerors would work so hard to destroy language, it is so intertwined with culture, with worldview. It is always a place of strength and resistance.

Next door was a small museum in honour of the Navajo code talkers, the men who joined the US army and used their language to keep our transmissions from the Japanese. The whole text of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers Act‘ was on the wall, and it surprised me. I have put in bold the things I never though the U.S. government would say out loud, and we circle around language…

(1) On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared by Congress the following day.

(2) The military code, developed by the United States for transmitting messages, had been deciphered by the Japanese and a search by United States military intelligence was made to develop new means to counter the enemy.

(3) The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting 29 Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps radio operators; the number of enlistees later increased to over 350.

(4) At the time, the Navajos were second-class citizens, and they were a people who were discouraged from using their own language.

(5) The Navajo Marine Corps radio operators, who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers, were used to develop a code using their language to communicate military messages in the Pacific.

(6) To the enemy’s frustration, the code developed by these Native Americans proved to be unbreakable and was used extensively throughout the Pacific theater.

(7) The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time. At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.

(A) So successful were they, that military commanders credited the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and the successful engagements of the United States in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa;

(B) So successful were they, that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy; and

(C) So successful were they, that the code was kept secret for 23 years after the end of World War II.

(8) Following the conclusion of World War II, the Department of Defense maintained the secrecy of the Navajo code until it was declassified in 1968; only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge from history.

I am unsure what the U.S. government has done since then to grant full, respectful, honoured citizenship or to encourage the speaking of indigenous languages, but I suppose medals were something. It would take a few years before other tribes were honoured for similar roles, the Comache and Choctaw among them, in WWI as well as WWII.

navajo_code_talkers_617_488We drove and drove, Northeast, out of the red rocks towards New Mexico. We passed Black Mesa, and the Peabody Company’s coal mine — another reminder of exploitation, another form of resource extraction.

EACH YEAR PEABODY COAL COMPANY PUMPS MORE THAN 4,500 ACRE-FEET OF PRISTINE NAVAJO AND HOPI DRINKING WATER FROM THE “N-AQUIFER.”

Peabody uses this pristine water supply simply to mix with crushed coal-called “slurry.” This “slurry” is then pumped through a pipeline over 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.

With every breath we take, 50 gallons of pristine ground water has just been pumped from the dry lands of northeastern Arizona. On Black Mesa, home to the Hopi and Navajo people, more than 300 gallons of potential drinking water has, in the last 10 seconds just been mixed with crushed coal. In the time it took to read these sentences Peabody Coal Company pumps over a thousand gallons of the cleanest groundwater in North America, simply to transport coal. Today, Peabody Coal pumps more than 3,600 acre-feet (equivalent to 4,600 football fields, one foot deep) per year of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer.

You can find out more on the Southwest Research and Information Centre site. These beautiful lands are also be exploited for their uranium, in summary of the report on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation from Brugge and Goble:

From World War II until 1971, the government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore in the United States. Uranium mining occurred mostly in the southwestern United States and drew many Native Americans and others into work in the mines and mills. Despite a long and well-developed understanding, based on the European experience earlier in the century, that uranium mining led to high rates of lung cancer, few protections were provided for US miners before 1962 and their adoption after that time was slow and incomplete. The resulting high rates of illness among miners led in 1990 to passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

You can read and listen to more on Democracy Now’s program ‘A Slow Genocide of the People’.  Even now people gather to stand against another exploitation of the earth and threat of contamination for land and water — the North Dakota pipeline.

In North Dakota, indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River. More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

I wish I could be there too. Instead I am here, writing. We drove onward. It looks pristine, but corporations are poisoning this land.

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

Shiprock.

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

A sea of crushed metal, old cars left here.

Road Trip Tuba City to Chama

Up to the ‘Aztec’ ruins. Midway between Chaco and Mesa Verde, this was an incredible Anasazi construction, planned and for the most part built within a very short time. Labelled Aztec because that’s all people apparently knew of indigenous cultures building in stone, too ignorant or racist to ask its real name. The National Park Service did try to give a ‘balanced’ history, but such radically different ways of seeing the world sit uneasily next to each other. There could be nothing too critical of the role archeology has played in the mythologizing of western expansions, nor of those expansions, nor the disrespect of native histories. A disrespect that stems from their attempted destruction. But it was good to hear native voices here, and the contrasting ways of seeing.

Aztec Ruins

This is a place that feels good, a place left to the ancestors before white men arrived, like Chaco, like Mesa Verde.

It’s construction is beautiful, full of details. The corner openings:

Aztec Ruins

T-shaped doors

Aztec Ruins

Stones rolled smooth from the river

Aztec Ruins

And other bands of decoration:

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

Once standing three stories high

Aztec Ruins

This wall traces exactly the path followed by the sun during the summer solstice

Aztec Ruins

It is a beautiful place. To see with eyes open and with eyes closed. The ground story of storage rooms still stand

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins

They open into other rooms, a mat left behind is still here, hundreds of  years old.

Aztec Ruins

From archaeology we see the map of the whole. Almost all of it built between 1100 and 1130, which is amazing. Then slowly added to.

IMG_6069

This map shows its symmetries, though it cannot explain their meaning.

Aztec Ruins

They have reconstructed the great kiva here, I am not sure about entering such a place of ceremony without ceremony. Without invitation. So I didn’t take pictures, but I did give thanks to be there. With mum. They are wonderful sacred spaces.

Aztec Ruins

Several of them, along with the large central one, are surrounded by smaller rooms. I have never seen this before.

Aztec Ruins

I didn’t love the small museum as much as the one in Tuba City, but the pottery was beautiful (so much here, as in the other NPS museums, on loan from far away. Pottery and artifacts taken away as property by the institutions who sponsored digs, I do not understand how they do not see this as a living place to which things still belong). Apart from the maps of the place itself, the trade routes were also wonderful:

Aztec Ruins

From here we continued on and on, up to Chama. A good day.

For love of brutalist concrete conservatories

Concrete conservatories are amazing. I have long had an architectural love affair with conservatories of metal and glass, and these elements are not missing from Krakow’s Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1783, it still serves as a teaching garden, and has a most wonderful collection of orchids and other tropical plants, many from the collection of botanist Joseph Warszewicz (1812–1866). The first greenhouse was built here in 1787, but they have been extended, reconstructed, and added to over the years and are entirely wonderful.

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

The plants were beautiful too, and here you can find many of the medicinal plants collected in jars upon jars at the Museum of Pharmacy, botany just another form of the dual aspiration to explore the wonders of the world and to better understand the various healing powers of plants. Until, of course, you bring Empire and the desire for profit extraction into it, I am curious how countries like Poland were part of that dynamic. But mostly I just love plants and conservatories.

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For more on brutalism and/or gardens…

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Glass, Wood, Animals, Books: The wonders of old pharmacies

Only a thin line separated alchemy from old pharmacies once. Apothecaries (who only later became the mystery-stripped ‘pharmacies’ or even worse ‘drug stores’) once contained wondrous collections of barrels, bottles, alembics, retorts, crucibles, pestles and mortars, animals whose bodies and bones were crushed and used in medicines. Of the medieval collections in Krakow’s Pharmacy Museum, the notes quote Shakespeare:

I do remember an apothecary—
And hereabouts he dwells—which late I noted
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples. Meager were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered to make up a show.
–Romeo & Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
This is Krakow’s museum in a nutshell. From the medieval section:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Cabinets of poisons clearly marked to avoid accident:

Museum of Pharmacy, KrakowMuseum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Great vaulted cellars, full of more wondrous things, above all the medicinal wine, either steeped in herbs or to be later mixed with dried herbal powders:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

We found this hidden round a corner. I don’t even know what this is.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Old water distillers, coloured glass vials, presses, alembics:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

 

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

As time moved on, techniques became refined, the furniture in polished inlaid wood of the Baroque or the Biedermeier style, the glass neatly labelled:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Rows and rows of canisters in glass and porcelain sitting above wonderful drawers of uniform shape, all rescued from old apothecaries across the city and brought here:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Hirudines! Aka leeches. A collection of more mortars and pestles, pictures of leading pharmacists of Krakow and their documents now of historical relevance rather than professional necessity:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Enormous mortars and pestles. And oh, my love for bottles and small labelled drawers full of strange powders and herbs and medicines overfloweth:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Old books are here also, with velveted covers:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Wooden boxes of superb craftsmanship filled with strange bottles and implements for the storing and mixing of musk:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Stoppered bottles of vibrant colour that make my heart beat faster:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Clear glass of strange shape and design:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Strange scissors of a shape perfectly crafted to an unknown task, old herbals, locked and keyed and made into beautiful works of art:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

A map of plants and the ‘world’ as it was once believed to be:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Prescriptions

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Tiny glass vials and velveted boxes of syringes used and reused.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Cork-crushers and medicine makers

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Herbs and storage

All found in the attic, where warmer and dryer air might do their work:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

This is one of my favourite places in this city, and I will be writing more because this only scratches the surface of the apothecarial wonder.

Also, please let us resurrect the term apothecary and use it more in everyday life.

I shall end with another quote from the museum, this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:

The rudimentary laboratory—in addition to a profusion of pots, funnels, retorts, filters, and sieves—was made up of a primitive water pipe, a glass beaker with a long, thin neck, a reproduction of the philosopher’s egg, and a still the gypsies themselves had built in accordance with modern descriptions of the three-armed alembic of Mary the Jew. Along with those items, Melquíades left samples of the seven metals that corresponded to the seven planets, the formulas of Moses and Zosimus for doubling the quantity of gold, and a set of notes and sketches concerning the processes of the Great Teaching that would permit those who could interpret them to undertake the manufacture of the philosopher’s stone. Seduced by the simplicity of the formulas to double the quantity of gold, José Arcadio Buendía paid court to Úrsula for several weeks so that she would let him dig up her colonial coins and increase them by as many times as it was possible to subdivide mercury. Úrsula gave in, as always, to her husband’s unyielding obstinacy. Then José Arcadio Buendía threw three doubloons into a pan and fused them with copper filings, orpiment, brimstone, and lead. He put it all to boil in a pot of castor oil until he got a thick and pestilential syrup which was more like common caramel than valuable gold. In risky and desperate processes of distillation, melted with the seven planetary metals, mixed with hermetic mercury and vitriol of Cyprus, and put back to cook in hog fat for lack of any radish oil, Úrsula’s precious inheritance was reduced to a large piece of burnt hog cracklings that was firmly stuck to the bottom of the pot.

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Dreams of Copernicus: Collegium Maius

Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…

I am not sure of the moral of this.

Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.

I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The Jagiellonian Globe:

Collegium Maius

Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.

A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:

Collegium Maius

Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:

Collegium Maius

And more:

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…

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300_424.8_2016.05.18.14.59.38This was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.

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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):

f570898501aecc7d8c8d30de3ebde0c9
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.

Sir_john_hawkins_early_arms_colour

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.

victoria
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).

artistandempire2511a3

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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