Artist Keith Piper Unveils His Retort To Tate’s Racist Rex Whistler Mural 

Keith Piper Tate Britain

Tate Britain Director Alex Farquharson has candidly acknowledged the profound challenges posed by the presence of the racist Rex Whistler mural in what was, until 2020, the gallery’s restaurant.

Farquharson expressed the complex dilemma faced by Tate, stating, “It represented an extraordinary quandary. Key aspects of Tate’s mission are in direct conflict—providing inclusivity to welcome our visitors and as custodian of an immovable, site-specific artwork.” (Art Newspaper)

The mural, titled “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” is Whistler’s most significant artwork, created when the artist was just 21. However, racist elements within the mural has presented disturbing challenges. While Tate does not formally allow access to the artwork, it is part of a listed building, adding to the complexity of the situation.

The former restaurant space, now repurposed as a gallery, will reopen featuring a commissioned work by Keith Piper. Piper’s creation, titled “Viva Voce” (Latin for “by word of mouth”), imagines a conversation between Whistler and a fictional professor.

Rex Whistler Tate Britain’s Racist Mural
Rex Whistler Tate Britain’s Racist Mural

Whistler’s mural, completed in 1927, contains two vignettes now deemed racist by contemporary standards. These depict derogatory scenes of a Black child being kidnapped and enslaved, along with caricatures of Chinese figures. These images have become highly troubling in recent years despite occupying a small portion of the mural’s surface.

Following Tate Britain’s closure in March 2020 due to Covid-19 and amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder in May, Tate initiated a consultation regarding the mural’s presentation in December 2020.

The consultation, led by five co-chairs, was marked by challenging discussions and profound disagreements among participants. Ultimately, the decision was made to commission a site-specific installation, announced in February 2022. Keith Piper’s appointment for this commission was confirmed in December 2022.

Piper’s response to the mural, embodied in “Viva Voce,” thoughtfully explores the issues. The 20-minute video features an actor portraying Whistler engaging in dialogue with a fictional interviewer. The original mural remains visible within the gallery space, albeit partially obscured.

Farquharson acknowledges the diversity of opinions surrounding the mural’s fate, ranging from calls for destruction to preserving its original purpose as a restaurant. Tate’s decision to commission a contemporary artist reflects a commitment to confronting and contextualizing troubling aspects of history.

Piper’s video will be presented for at least a year, with the potential for extension based on visitor feedback. As for the film’s future within Tate’s collection, Farquharson indicates that acquisition remains a possibility, contingent upon further deliberation and response.

Keith Piper (b.1960) rose to prominence in the 1980s as a founder member of the BLK Art Group. He has gone on to stage solo exhibitions at museums and galleries across the UK, USA and Europe. His output as an artist ranges from painting and photography to video and digital media. Piper also works as a curator, researcher and academic and is a Professor at Middlesex University, London.

Rex Whistler, born Reginald John Whistler, was a British artist renowned for his versatility and whimsical style. Born on June 24, 1905, in Eltham, Kent, Whistler displayed artistic talent from a young age. He attended the Royal Academy Schools in London, where he honed his skills in painting, drawing, and illustration.
Whistler’s artistry spanned various mediums, including painting, drawing, mural design, and illustration. He became known for his intricate and imaginative works, often characterised by fantasy and wit—Whistler’s unique style blended surrealism, classical aesthetics, and decorative art elements.

Whistler excelled as a portraitist and illustrator. He produced illustrations for books, magazines, and advertisements, showcasing his ability to capture scenes with charm and elegance. His portraits, characterised by meticulous detail and a notion, earned him acclaim among patrons and peers.

In addition to his visual artistry, Whistler was also a talented writer and designer. He contributed to theatrical productions, designed sets and costumes, and even wrote and illustrated his books. His multidisciplinary approach to artistry reflected his boundless creativity and passion for storytelling.

Whistler’s promising career was cut short when he lost his life during World War II while serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. Despite his untimely death at 39 in 1944, his artistic legacy endures, leaving behind a body of work that continues to interest the public.

Top Photo: Keith Piper Installation Courtesy Tate Britain

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