Entangled Pasts: Colonialism’s Unilluminated Histories Royal Academy – Lee Sharrock 

Entangled Pasts Artlyst

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now. Art, Colonialism and Change’ takes over the main galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts from 3rd February to 28th April 2024. Curator Professor Dorothy Price brings contemporary and historical works from 50 artists as part of a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and Colonialism. 

This compelling, complex and thought-provoking exhibition features more than 100 contemporary and historic artworks demonstrating how art can change how we see the world and understand each other. ‘Entangled Pasts’ was conceived by the RA in 2021 in response to urgent public debates about the relationship between artistic representation and imperial histories. These debates reached the top of the public agenda following the horrific murder of George Floyd in the USA and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter movement. ‘Entangled Pasts’ acknowledges the somewhat chequered history of the RA’s association with Colonialism and the racist mindset of some original Royal Academicians in the 18th and 19th Centuries and seeks to address some uncomfortable truths and redress the balance by exhibiting art by some of the most exciting artists from Africa and the African diaspora.

John Singleton Copley,
John Singleton Copley Photo © Artlyst 2024

The RA was founded in 1768 at the height of Britain’s Atlantic trade in enslaved African people when British colonial expansion was on the rise. The leading artists of the day exhibited at the RA and created work representing current events and the people involved, which helped shape public taste and opinion. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from some unsavoury facts about its past links to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, acknowledging that former Royal Academician, the American artist John Singleton Copley, enslaved three servants at his farm in Boston during the 18th century.

‘Entangled Pasts’ juxtaposes contemporary and historical works to create thematic and visual connections across time and shows how art can act as a powerful lens of society and history. An exhibition on a subject as complex and vast as Colonialism and Empire necessitates a sensitive and careful curatorial and academic approach, and the curator has taken great care to ensure this sensitivity by selecting artists, including contemporary British artists of the African, Caribbean and South Asian diasporas, whose practice refracts moments of history.

Mohini Chandra and Isaac Julien
Isaac Julien Photo © Artlyst 2024

Artworks by leading contemporary British artists of the African, Caribbean and South Asian diasporas, including Sonia Boyce, Frank Bowling, Mohini Chandra and Isaac Julien, are on display alongside works by artists from the past 250 years, including Joshua Reynolds, J.M.W. Turner and John Singleton Copley. These juxtapositions provoke a dialogue around notions of history, representation and power, creating a connection between past and present.

A highlight of the exhibition is Tavares Strachan’s monumental black and gold sculpture ‘First Supper’, which greets visitors in the RA courtyard and sets the tone for the exhibition in the main galleries. Strachan celebrates prominent figures from Black history, including American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, dub producer King Tubby, pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie and polar explorer Matthew Henson.

Lubaina Himid RA 'Naming the Money'
Lubaina Himid RA ‘Naming the Money’ Photo © Artlyst 2024

Breathtaking installations in the main galleries include Hew Locke RA ‘Armada’ (2017-19), Lubaina Himid RA ‘Naming the Money’, El Antasui’s wood and metal sculpture ‘Akua’s Surviving Children’ (1996), and Isaac Julien’s 2019 film’ Lessons of the Hour’.

From the Tate collection, Hew Locke’s ‘Armada’ features a flotilla of 45 boats of varying sizes and styles, from miniature cargo ships to fishing boats, which the artist made between 2017 and 2019. The flotilla is delicately suspended from the ceiling of the RA galleries and was inspired by models of votive boats offered by worshippers to give thanks for survival at sea, which Locke had seen in churches and cathedrals in Europe. Some boats are decorated with coins from the Caribbean, Gambia and Syria, referencing the international trade and the movement of goods, as well as the movement of people and the global refugee crisis.

Isaac Julien’s‘ Lessons of the Hour’ is a poetic meditation on the life of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which includes excerpts of his speeches. In the same room as Julien’s film is ‘The Manacled Slave’, a 19th-century bronze sculpture by John Bell, and a 19th-century porcelain sculpture by Hiram Powers titled ‘The Greek Slave’. ‘The Greek Slave’ became a symbol used to further the abolitionist cause, and the sculpture attracted over 100,000 viewers when it went on a tour of the USA in 1847. It was exhibited in the UK at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 and became a focus for abolitionist demonstrations.

Lubaina Himid’s vibrant installation Naming the Money (2004) features 70 life-size painted cut-out figures that visitors can walk through. The statistics represent enslaved Africans in the royal courts of 18th-century Europe, who were put to work as ceramicists, painters, map makers, herbalists, toy makers, dog trainers and shoemakers. They are given a voice with an accompanying soundtrack. Himid says: “Each cut-out has a real name; each one can say who they are, but each one lives with their new name and their new unpaid occupation, attempting somehow to reconcile the two.”

Hung in the same room as the majestic Hew Locke ‘Armada’ is a carefully curated selection of portraits of significant black figures. Richard Evans’ 1816 portraits of King Henry Christophe of Haiti and his son Prince Victor project the power of the sitters. Henry Christophe became King following the Haitian Revolution when the enslaved people overthrew the French regime and founded the independent nation of Haiti. The portraits were exhibited at the RA in 1818 after Christophe sent them across the Atlantic to William Wilberforce.

David Martin’s 1779 portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray depicts the young Dido, the illegitimate child of an enslaved woman and a Royal Navy Officer living with her second cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House in London. Kenwood House was home to William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788. Mansfield’s ruling in the 1772 Somerset Case was widely understood to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England.

Kehinde Wiley's 2024 portrait of Kijuan Buggie
Kehinde Wiley’s 2024 portrait of Kijuan Buggie Photo © Artlyst 2024

Kehinde Wiley’s 2024 portrait of Kijuan Buggie features a stranger he approached via a ‘street casting’, portrayed in his clothes, adopting a pose from an 18th-century portrait by Joshua Reynolds of Captain Arthur Blake. Patrons of Joshua Reynolds, founder and first President of the RA, included those who benefitted from colonial businesses and the slave trade. Wiley’s portrait redresses the racial imbalance of portraiture by depicting an ordinary man in a majestic pose.

The exhibition’s unsettling and powerful imagery encourages visitors to engage with uncomfortable truths from the legacy of slavery and Colonialism. One room is dominated by ‘The Babylonian Marriage Market’ (1875), a vast painting by Edwin Longsden Long of a slave auction. The girls are painted in racially hierarchised registers of skin tone and sit in the foreground, whilst the palest woman is elevated on a podium and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

A curious object is displayed in a glass case in the same room. At a glance, it looks like a make-up palette, but on closer inspection, it is a guide to skin tone. A label inside the lid of the case says ‘The Coloureds Codex: An Overseer’s Guide to Comparative Complexion’ and is accompanied by two illustrations of a white man inspecting the face of a black man. This nauseating object gives an insight into the evil ethos of Colonialism and the slave trade, and the realisation that human beings were graded and judged purely on their skin tone and traded like commodities is horrific.

One room themed ‘Constructing Whiteness’ is curated around the notion of ‘whiteness’ and its origins in slavery and Colonialism. It also features Betye Saar’s powerful 1998 installation, ‘I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break’. An ironing board is positioned with a white cotton sheet hanging on a clothesline behind it, three letters embroidered discreetly in one corner. It turns out that the ironing board is decorated with an 18th Century diagram of the British slave ship Brookes, and the letters on the sheet are:

Referencing the garments worn by the American white supremacist hate group.
The Ku Klux Klan.

Hanging in the same room is Sir Frank Dicksee’s 1892 oil on canvas of two pale nude figures conforming to the 19th-century notions of a perfect body image and demonstrating the ‘Aryanising’ of academic art, with a Viking long-ship in the background of the painting symbolising the ‘Nordic Race’. The wall text reveals that Dicksee rejected avant-garde art associated with Primitivism as ‘racially impure’ and was quoted as saying, “Our ideal of beauty must be the white man’s”. Dicksee was President of the RA from 1924 to 1928, and the RA doesn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the more shameful attitudes of its former Royal Academicians.

Yinka Shonibare's 'Justice for All'
Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Justice for All’ Photo © Artlyst 2024

There is a glimmer of hope in the exhibition’s final room, where Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Justice for All’ re-imagines the statue of Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey. Shonibare’s sculpture is exhibited with RA Schools graduate Olu Ogunnaike’s ‘I’d Rather Stand’, a recreation of the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in a custom-made material from re-used hardwood.

The RA says of the exhibition: “We hope this is part of an important, ongoing conversation for the people connected to the Royal Academy as an institution, just one milestone on the long road towards necessary change as we collectively reflect on our entangled pasts.”

‘Entangled Pasts’ is a vital and unforgettable exhibition, which has been painstakingly researched and lovingly curated to acknowledge the painful legacy of Colonialism and redress the racial imbalance of representation in art. ‘Vanishing Point 18 (Titian)’, (2020), a delicate drawing by Barbara Walker RA, from her series that re-works Old Master paintings and inserts black figures as a way of addressing “a compelling absence of black representation in our national archives and, by extension, in the collective memory of British society”, beautifully demonstrates the need for this groundbreaking exhibition, which celebrates some of the most exciting contemporary British artists of the African, Caribbean and South Asian diasporas, whilst confronting the mistakes of the past.

Words: Lee Sharrock Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst 2024

‘Entangled Pasts, 1768–now. Art, Colonialism and Change’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 3rd February to 28th April 2024.

Read More




, ,