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Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Colonial Past - exhibition review

Museum and Gallery Reviews by Gavin Baldwin

Gavin is Programme Leader for the citizenship PGCE at Middlesex University and an experienced teacher of history and citizenship. He is a long standing member of ACT and joined the Council in 2010. Gavin became co-editor of the ACT journal 'Teaching Citizenship'  in 2012.

Welcome to an ongoing series of reviews of museum and gallery exhibitions that might be of interest to citizenship teachers and colleagues who teach related subjects. My intention is to cast my net widely to capture a range of shows that throw an interesting light on citizenship issues, offer resources to enrich our teaching and help us develop a broad view of what citizenship might mean. Some of these exhibitions offer an opportunity for a citizenship focused trip, some might be worth exploring though related websites and some will give you ideas of places to visit for inspiration. Most of my reviews will be London based as that’s where I live but if there is an exhibition that you think offers potential, why not let me know or send us a review yourself?

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Colonial Past
Tate Britain: Exhibition | 25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016

This problematic exhibition presents artwork related to the British Empire. It claims to ‘illustrate the complicated histories embodied in objects, inviting us to consider how their status and meaning change over time. In reflecting imperial narratives and post-colonial re-evaluations, it foregrounds the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in Art today.’

The theme of Empire has a lot to offer citizenship teachers but also those interested in political ideas expressed in visual language. Empire is a loaded concept, which makes curating an art exhibition on the subject challenging. I don’t feel that this exhibition quite succeeds in developing a strong enough critique but engaging with that problem in its own right is an excellent opportunity to develop critical thinking in citizenship.

What can the exhibition tell us about citizenship?

Despite failing to live up to its claims it still provides opportunities to consider citizenship themes such as power and dominance, resistance, propaganda, justice and economy.

The exhibition starts with an impressive display of maps. Here we could explore how early colonialists dominated the landscape by imposing their own systems of looking (surveying), land organisation (boundaries) and naming - thereby erasing indigenous modes of understanding. The second room, Trophies of Empire, enables us to demonstrate how the new worlds that were encountered both fascinated by their diversity but also encouraged other forms of dominance through collecting, categorisation and display etc. The ambivalent nature of understanding ‘the other’ without engaging fully with their perspective should be discussed.

There follow two rooms, ‘Imperial Heroics’ and ‘Power Dressing’ that show the use of History painting and portraiture to present the ‘History’ of Empire to the British public though the construction of heroes and the demonization of natives. Here there is a counterfactual installation British Infantry advance on Jerusalem, 4th July 1879 by Andrew Gilbert (2015), which presents a triumphant tableau in which British soldiers are feminised and paraded as if defeated. This attempts to set up a critical dialogue with the Imperial 19th century art on the surrounding walls but the Imperialist voice remains stronger.

Ways in which public opinion can be influenced by the careful manipulation of imagery and emotion can be seen here. In these rooms few works suggest the upheaval and terror of Empire building with the exception of some photographs, particularly those of Felice A Beato representing warfare (but not British bodies!).

The latter part of the exhibition starts to present seriously the art of the colonised as well as the art of their oppressors. This is particularly powerful in the final two rooms ‘Out of Empire’ and Legacies of Empire. Here we can see works of protest and pain. Aubrey Williams Tribal Mark II is described as connoting ‘trauma, revolt and destruction’.

A citizenship critique

The problem for the citizenship teacher in using this show is that the critical works are largely saved until the end. Throughout I wanted to see a dialogue set up between the art objects and artefacts that confronted, directly and critically, the political and social problems created by The British Empire and its legacy. Why save to the end of the exhibition works that relate directly to those previously seen? Why not hang Andrew Gilbert’s All Roads Lead to Ulundi (2015) next to Walter Crane’s map Imperial Federation (1886) (itself a socialist critique) to which it directly refers?

Crane’s map shows the extent of the British Empire with main trade routes in 1896 with an inset map showing colonies one hundred years earlier. It is framed with an elaborate colourful border of allegorical figures representing parts of the empire all paying homage to Britannia. The way in which figures are given equal prominence be they Empire builders or subjects suggests Crane’s socialist ideas coexisting within a framework of Imperial co-operation (see catalogue p.34).

Gilbert's work places the map in the top half of the space and colours the parts of the Empire blood red. The figures in the frame are more satirically drawn (even referring to Tesco and Lidl). The images critique economic exploitation, the dominance of corporate powers in contemporary global economics consumerism and British Imperial military defeats (see catalogue p.238). An image of this can be found here.

Why separate the majestic Benin Bronzes from Tony Philips' oppositional engravings from his series History of the Benin Bronzes (1984)? These show a bronze seized in A British Punitive Expedition. This is then reworked in the adjoining plate, Face to Face, to show the same bronze being admired as a museum object devoid of context and protected by a vitrine (see catalogue p.81).

With a lack of dialogue comes a problem of language. To be effective the debate needs to be conducted visually. It isn’t that there is no critical comment but that the commentary is made through written labels - often unread. A further ‘linguistic’ problem emerges in room 5 where ‘western’ style is contrasted with ‘other’ styles. We have to be told that the Yoruba Figure in a Pith Helmet and Figure with Accordion 'were not intended to be sardonic. Rather they convey something of the mystique associated with colonial bureaucracy.’  And if the critical works of the final room were rehung to stimulate debate, would their voice be stifled by the sheer size and volume of the other works?

So a problem for citizenship teachers? Undoubtedly - but also a rich opportunity to consider the use of power, both physical and intellectual, to dominate and exploit others and the propaganda qualities of Art to support a particular political view and even oppose and resist it!

Smith, A. et al Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. Tate London 2015

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