Can The Tate Britain curate a post-imperial future?

“It must be done, and England should do it” – John Everett Millais, 1874

Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past exhibition catalogue opens with a foreword by the esteemed scholar of black Britain, Paul Gilroy. Britain, Paul Gilroy has argued on occasion, “remains ambivalent about its imperial past.” In the catalogue for the recent Tate Britain exhibition Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016), Gilroy continues along similar lines, writing in the foreword that the British Empire “is often narrated as a simple story of civilisational clash that anticipates the diplomatic and military problems of the present. Apart from the sheer scale involved in the uncomfortable task of post-imperial evaluation, there is contemporary pressure to filter the Empire’s protracted history, to compress its expansive geography, to deny the whole, lengthy process any philosophical or cultural dimensions and to mystify its profound economic consequences.”

James Sant, "Captain Colin Mackenzie", 1842
James Sant, “Captain Colin Mackenzie”, 1842

The exhibition therefore seeks to explore the “porous” boundaries “between the exotic, the everyday, the anthropological, and the aesthetic” (per Gilroy) by way of an astonishingly vast array of visual and cultural objects produced in and collected from Britain’s overseas colonies and protectorates.

Artist and Empire is organised into six sections – Mapping and Marking, Trophies of Empire, Imperial Heroics, Power Dressing, Face to Face, and Out of Empire/Legacies of Empire. The exhibition proposes to “foreground the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in art today.” On my way through London after a conference on the fragments of American empire in Beirut, several friends and colleagues recommended I take a break from my own work on the resonance of black identity in one particular former British dominion (Egypt) and stop by the Tate instead. I’m a bit confused by what I saw.

The vast majority of artwork and objects on display consist of overwrought and lavish portraiture, typically of British imperial figures (often “cross dressed” in native ‘garb,’ as above) who are sometimes accompanied by docile, feminine, and exotic colonial subjects in the background, or kneeling adoringly beside them. Anyone familiar with the basics of Edward Said’s use of Orientalism as a theoretical lens will be unsurprised at the number of paintings that juxtapose the half-naked native with the regally uniformed British officer in a Caribbean, British North American, South Asian, or African setting.

Even when colonial subjects are the central subjects in a painting, they are still placed in orientalist arrangements that reflect British sensibilities. For example, white colonial masters paternalistically presiding over a gathering of newly civilised subjects, as in Charles Warren Malet’s 1805 portrayal of a treaty signing in Mysore. Or the East/West hybrid styling of Carlo Marochetti’s 1856 coloured bust of Duleep Singh (a gift to Prince Albert). Not to mention the beguiling primitivism in a 1784 portrait of a Polynesian chieftain’s daughter painted John Webber in the style of Venus (i.e. topless).

John Webber, Poedua, Daughter of Orio, 1784
John Webber, “Poedua, Daughter of Orio”, 1784

The exhibition candidly discusses (more so in the catalogue but still present in the gallery) the often horrifying circumstances that enabled such scenes to be rendered on canvas, in stone, or in photograph. Poedua, the aforementioned daughter of a chief name Orio, was held hostage by James Cook in order to compel her father to allow two of Cook’s crew (gone AWOL of their own accord) to return safely. Visual renderings of kidnapped, imprisoned, or enslaved peoples unfortunate enough to encounter the British abound in the exhibition, occasionally offset by subversive art produced in situ.

An example of the resistance art on display includes brilliant Asafo flags made by Fante artists in the early twentieth century. Fante people appropriated the Union flag for use alongside images and symbols of local significance. The exhibition explains such flags are first produced to demonstrate loyalty to the British, but are eventually banned as seditious in the midst of Ghana’s struggle for independence. 

Additionally, early in the exhibit, Scottish artist’s Andrew Gilbert’s installation, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, asks what would happen if the British had lost the Battle of Ulundi in 1879, rather than the Zulu army? Would they too have been put on display?

Finally, Artist and Empire closes with a nod to the resonance that British Empire has on modern (“post-colonial,” even) artistic production in Britain. The Out of Empire/Legacies of Empire room features watercolours by Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, sculpture by Ronald Moody and Benedict Enwonwu, and other pieces from Donald Locke, Sonia Boyce, Judy Watson, Tony Phillips, The Singh Twin along with a number of other twentieth century and contemporary artists

Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015
Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015

There is no question that what Professor Gilroy sees in Artist and Empire – a chance to “reconcile the tasks of remembering and working through Britain’s imperial past with the different labour of building its post-colonial future” – is a productive exercise in itself. But those tasks, and this labour, seem more dependent on the position of the visitor themselves than it is effectively probed in the curation and presentation of the exhibit.

Something about the clever counter-linearity of the exhibition is profoundly superficial, however. At the start of Artist and Empire, viewers are confronted with Walter Crane’s 1886 map of the imperial federation, a subtle socialist critique of commercial imperialism denoted by several visual cues common to the socialist movement in the late nineteenth century. This map re-appears, again by Andrew Gilbert (All Roads Lead to Ulundi [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015), at the end – a reimagining of the imperial and cartographic triumphs apparent in the colonial British artwork on display.

The effort to expose what Paul Gilroy refers to as the “disputed legacies” of British colonialism is clearly apparent in what is ultimately an illuminating glimpse at the beauty and barbarism of Britain’s imperial past. “Past,” however, may be the Tate Britain overstating Britain’s progress in its cultural, and indeed political, investments.

Walter Crane, Imperial Federation:Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886
Walter Crane, Imperial Federation:Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886
Andrew Gilbert, All Roads Lead to Ulundi [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015
Andrew Gilbert, “All Roads Lead to Ulundi” [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015

I frequently wondered about the prior ownership and means of acquisition of many objects on display when confronted with a Maori quarterstaff (Taiaha) and Kainaiwa war bonnet. Both of these sacred objects appear with white men in other contexts: the Taiaha surfaces again in painting, propped beside Sir Joseph Banks in a 1771 portrait by Benjamin West.

Tate Britain is not unique among other cultural, national institutions in the Western hemisphere for excluding mention that the artefacts it holds (and displays) are stolen goods. But my question upon viewing the exhibition is where, in Artist and Empire, does an acknowledgement of these items and their legal precarity appear? Does such an admission of the spoils of empire threaten, as with the glaring lack (with the exception of one T.E. Lawrence and his “friend,” the Emir Feisal) of the Arab world in the galleries*, the ‘innocent’ nostalgia for empire that Britain continues to clutch onto?

Augustus John, Colonel T.E. Lawrence and The Emir Feisal, 1919
Augustus John, Colonel T.E. Lawrence and The Emir Feisal, 1919

I am not entirely sure that Artist and Empire “faces” anything at all. I appreciate its efforts to query the roots of British identity, particularly as Alison Smith notes in the catalogue, in light of this “moment in crisis in British identity.” This exhibition is certainly a step above the far less critical The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, put on by Tate Britain in 2008. However, its tepid historicizing of colonial brutality – and complete silence on contemporary unevenness of labour, production, and ownership in both the arts and in British society at large – renders the exhibit one of many perfunctory exercises to purge a shallow sense of guilt without addressing the very real and material logics that sustain ongoing, structural inequalities within and outside of Britain.

*Everyone I spoke to about this exhibition later had the same question: Where the hell are the Arabs, Tate Britain?

Sophia Azeb

Sophia Azeb is a writer and scholar based at the University of Southern California. She tweets as @brownisthecolor.

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