Artist and Empire (Tate Britain, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016)
The initial question was, which artist, which empire?

Well, of course, this is Tate Britain, so the British Empire, but you don’t want to ignore the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Belgian, the Ottoman, the Viking, the Roman … And that is to limit ourselves to a Eurocentric model. African and Asian empires… My history knowledge is insufficient. Is there a league table of evil empires?

Am I assuming the British Empire is evil from the get go?

And here, of course, we are in the heart of the Tate, a space built on the profits of the sugar trade:

The Tate Gallery Liverpool is based in the Albert Dock complex, on the north bank of the river Mersey. In order for the dock to be opened in 1846, a public house, several houses and a previous dock had to be demolished. One of its major commodities was sugar, and Henry Tate was one of those who used the docks to import the sugar needed for his business. The sugar initially came from cane cut by slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean, though formal slavery was gradually abolished throughout the nineteenth century. In 1889, Tate donated a collection of 65 contemporary paintings to the nation, together with a substantial bequest for a gallery to show them, and 1897, the National Gallery of British Art opened in Millbank, London, on the north bank of the river Thames.

As far as I can tell — and the exhibition is silent on this — Tate’s business was built in the second half of the nineteenth century and thus after the slave trade as such. It is in the era of indentured labour and apprentices, better than pure slavery but clearly in an infrastructure that was first built with slavery in mind. There are few depictions of slavery that I recall from the exhibition — perhaps only part of one landscape and in the margins of Walter Crane’s supposedly radical map. I don’t think there are any depictions of sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas — the cash crops of empire.

The first room, “Mapping and Marking”, shows the various charts that filled in the blank parts of the world for the British explorer, the unveiling of Australia, the breadth of the pink parts of the world and views of exotic climes. In applying cartography, a western politician convenience is imposed upon existing indigenous models of land use and land ownership, existing names are subsumed under British toponyms. There is a nod to Ireland, too, perhaps the first British colony, if Wales is excluded…

(And Scotland? Are we Trainspotting‘s bunch of effete wankers or did the invitation to James VI mean the Scots colonised us? In any case, the early part of exploration was an English-and-Welsh-colony. Oh, but what about the chunks of France we had?)

There are African flags, relics of colonising, but their creators are speechless.

In “Trophies of Empire” we see the purpose of empire — to find objects to fill zoos and museums and botanical gardens, public spaces and entertainments sometimes aside asylums, sometimes in the cause of temperance. The spoils of empire here are not sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas, but plants and animals; the dingo, the Tasmanian tiger, the crane, flowers… There are also the carvings and niknaks of anonymous tribes people, rarely ascribed to an actual maker. I recall looking around the Brenchley collection in Maidstone Art Gallery and Museum and wondered how much of it was plundering and how much the Victorian equivalent of “They went to the Pacific Northwest and All They Got Me Was This Lousy Headdress”. The objects are literally from all over the world, but without the rigour of the Pitt-Rivers Museum classification by function. It is not at this point clear what the sorting narrative of the exhibition is — but there’s a broad chronologucal approach.

The third room, “Imperial Heroics”, is a space for eighteenth and nineteenth century history painting, with accounts of massacres and last stands and slaughtered colonists. Little of it, frankly, is any good and the answer to the question not quite posed by the exhibition’s title is that we were not good at looking at empire. The best that can be said is the art undercuts its own messages — the symbolism of Queen Victoria giving a bible to a native leader (Thomas Jones Barker (c. 1863)) or Britannia slaughtering a tiger (Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858)) cries out for critique. Are some of these paintings depictions of people rightfully defending themselves from invasion?

One representation that clearly requires further head scratching is William Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805–9), which I don’t think I’ve seen before and perhaps needs to be located in his cosmic history of the world that links Biblical to British history. Nelson for him would be current affairs — Blake does do satire too — but odd to see Nelson as a Hindu god and a mannacled slave ready to be rescued.

The fourth room, “Power Dressing”, has depictions of colonists in nature dress and natives dressed in colonial dress. Inevitably there’s going to be issues of appropriation, patronisation, various levels of Orientalism, and again there’s a low quality threshold. I suspect the colonialist cannot win, as it were, in terms of ethics. I wonder also if there’s a problem with using the term “power dressing” — which I associate with women trying to be successful in the workplace in the 1980s — in the curation and the term “cross-dressing”, with its gender connotations, in the booklet.

The penultimate room, “Face to Face”, is a series of portraits, some by westerners of the indigenous, some by the colonised of the coloniser. I don’t recall if there were any self-portraits of the natives. There are also figurines or statuettes, but again there’s uneasiness from the anonymity of the artists (a legacy of the looter or the commissioner or the purchaser) and the geographical spread of the objects. Australasia melts into India melts into Africa. It’s all the same empire.

The final room is divided in two, “Out of Empire” and “Legacies of Empire”, I suspect the smallest space of the six. This covers the century of decolonisation and independence, a period when colonial artefacts had reached western museums and influenced (read: were appropriated by) western artists. Henry Moore springs to mind, but he isn’t here. Artists came to Britain from the colonies having studied art or to study art — a Sidney Nolan I don’t recall seeing before springs to mind as an exemplar. A handful of artists get to represent the Commonwealth artists’ commentary on empire — centrally Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, an open cabinet of curiosities of jars and pots and objects almost shaped like sex toys, with shackles and handcuffs. This is one of the few representations of slavery in the exhibition. There are also photos by Locke’s son Hew Locke, statues of colonial figures, Edmund Burke and Edward Colston, overlaid with bling.

I don’t think in the end that the artists here really faced up to empire – the “postimperial” ones, maybe, but I think the exhibituon needs a lot more contextualisation than the casual observer who hasn’t bought the catalogue can give it. In the bookshop, you can buy Franz Fanon or read about King Leopold’s slave, but that kind of discourse isn’t in the show.

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