Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Facing Britain's Imperial Past

Manchester City Galleries 

I once worked with a colleague from the same post-war generation as myself who said that his school (I think as late as the early 1960s) continued to mark ‘Empire Day' – an event of which I had barely heard and was astonished it might still be celebrated.  Because the dissolution of the self-styled ‘British Empire’ with the independence of India and Pakistan, followed by the swift transformation of other colonies into supposed equal members of the rebranded ‘Commonwealth’ was always presented as a jolly good idea rather than with any sense of lost glory, failure or defeat.  Subsequently, if not generally ignored and essentially forgotten, Empire became a realm of embarrassment and shame, as the once-renowned military adventures were rediscovered as aggressive adjuncts to conquest, exploitation, oppression.  So one would not have expected, in the last part of the 20th century, to see any exhibition unequivocally devoted to the subject, and not least because most of the directly associated art – fanciful battle paintings, tear-jerking scenes of suffering (European)  women and children, heroic equestrian statuary – is poor in quality as well as ideologically. Stubbs’ painting of a cheetah being an exception.

Artist and Empire: facing Britain’s Imperial Past at Tate Britain is thus an interesting post-imperial project, ranging far and wide geographically and stretching from the 16th to 21st century.  Its aim, to quote the brief guide, is to ‘illustrate the complicated histories embodied by objects, inviting us to consider how their status and meaning change over time. In reflecting imperial narratives and post-colonial re-evaluation, it foregrounds the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in art today’.  Note the careful absence of any celebration in that final sentence – Empire is not (yet?) the source of any joy or commendation.  

The display is too heterogenous to summarize,  and I am personally less interested, visually or conceptually, in imagined scenes of bloodthirsty events masquerading as heroic defeats (Rorkes’ Drift, General Gordon etc)  for which artists usually had to seek out Zulu performers to portray savage ‘fuzzywuzzies’.  The most interesting aspect of Artists and Empire is the endeavour to create a dialogue between domestic British representations of Empire and responses to it from India, Africa and the Americas, representing the coloniser in their own art forms, including sculpture and textiles.  One would like to see this exchange expanded, for the present exhibition is largely drawn from British collections, limiting the range of depictions, many objects being trophies or curios that imperialists obtained overseas.  A selection with a Southeast Asian focus is however scheduled for Singapore in late 2016.

Singh Twins / Museum of London 
Notable too is the extent to which, if most (white) Britons have airbrushed Empire from their historical sense, so that it has become as fantastic as the world of Arthur and Merlin, artists of Indian, African and Caribbean heritage remain highly conscious of the colonial legacy.   Here, the Singh Twins' intricate painting EnTWINed answers Eastward Ho and Home Again, mid-Victorian portrayals of troops sent from Liverpool to quell the Indian insurrection (though sadly the pictures are widely separated in this show, so their dialogue, including that with the triumphal picture of Britannia spearing the Bengal tiger, also on display, is not immediately visible).   
Hew Locke /Hales Gallery
Donald Locke’s unsettling Trophies of Empire stands near his son Hew’s image of the statue of Bristol slaver Edward Colston draped with glittering yet tawdry ornaments, from the Restoration series. 

PS    this message just received from BBC Arts Desk.  If the senders [anonymous to me] mean  what they say in the 'personal note', they should be kept to their promise....

ARTSNIGHT: Kwasi Kwarteng
WATCH HERE FROM 28 November: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06qmklr 
Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng is the guest curator of this episode of Artsnight. The author of the book 'Ghosts of Empire', Kwasi looks at how the British Empire impacted on art, architecture and literature. He meets one of Australia's greatest living novelists - Peter Carey - to discuss the writer's obsession with early colonial life, as well as exploring Tate Britain's Artist and Empire exhibition. Comedian Shazia Mirza discusses why fabric and clothing is so vital to the story of the Indian sub-continent. And we meet the sculptor Fowokan, who found a way of reconnecting with his ancestral African past through his work.
On a personal note I'd also like to add that our team in BBC Arts is a small group of people who are really trying to change the nature of Arts programming at the BBC and with this episode of ARTSNIGHT we wanted to produce and provoke a broader and more diverse discussion about the cultural legacy of the British Empire (at least broader and more diverse than you usually find on TV...). I hope we've made at least a small change to the way this subject is discussed.
I would also highly recommend another episode of ARTSNIGHT to the people on your mailing list, which is the one we made with George The Poet for 30 October. He is a young British-African spoken word poet who used his episode to explore the nature of "black culture", including an interview with Paul Gilroy - that seems like it could be pertinent to the themes explored in 'No Colour Bar'. By the time you send the email out tomorrow, I'm afraid that there will only be one more day left to watch it on BBC iPlayer (!).
ARTSNIGHT: George The Poet 
WATCH HERE UNTIL 29 November: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06l53tw

In this episode of Artsnight, George the Poet explores the meaning of black culture in four spoken word chapters. Racheal Ofori opens up some black female stereotypes, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell look back at the beginnings of dub poetry, Professor Paul Gilroy explains some of the history of black diasporas, and Akala likens rap to the works of Shakespeare. George the Poet asks - what is black culture?

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