Once again, due to busy scheduling, I attended another blockbuster Tate exhibition on its closing day. However, this time proved a much different experience. Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past showed at Tate Britain; the oldest establishment of the Tate group with a focus on British art. Perhaps due to a more traditional and sombre theme, in contrast to the international contemporary works on show at Tate Modern, there was a much smaller crowd.
The layout of the exhibition was true to Tate fashion, with numbered rooms that guided you through a thematic route that had a chronological feel. However, unlike exhibitions on at Tate Modern, the walls here are painted various colours that complimented the exhibited works, which was spotlighted. All together, it created a grand atmosphere typical of museums, unlike the modernist aesthetics of the gallery styled white walls.
The next three rooms, ‘Trophies of Empire’, ‘Imperial Heroics’ and ‘Power Dressing’ showcases the conquest of Britain through objects, heroic conquest and dress. I think that the problems highlight themselves in the tones suggested in the title, which essentially places Britain on a pedestal. Objects from the colony are taken as trophies, evidence of conquest, and often stripped of their original cultural context and meaning. Painted by Benjamin West, Sir Joseph Banks, 1771, is a portrait of the titular figure draped in New Zealand indigenous people, Maori, flax cloak, kaitaka, poised next to Maori cultural objects. For me, it is poignant that the flax cloak, normally worn individually, is in this portraiture tradition styled over Western garb. Further, the flax cloak is also much more draped that the nature of flax would have allowed, perhaps evoking a lineage to the Greeks, which is upheld as the cornerstone of civilisation in the West. Further, History paintings of battles between the British and indigenous communities, highlights the former as the hero, even in defeat.
The last two rooms attempt to show the changing aesthetics and themes that developed after the decline of the British Empire. Contemporary artists showcase developed aesthetics that shifts away from the Western legacy, as introduces an alternative lens. I particularly enjoyed Balraj Khanna’s Forest Walk. Painted in 1969, the shades of green and blue moving along lilting arabesques evoking languid wanderings. This sentiment radiates even more powerfully after reading the text panel that details the events that sparked the artist to paint it. Balraj Khanna created this painting following his achievement of peace as he recovered from a motor-accident. The variations of styles presented in the last two rooms offer diversity. However, I find it unsettling that despite the pre-ultimate room being titled ‘Out of Empire’, the last room closed with ‘Legacies of Empire’, which reflects a refusal to completely relinquish British ownership.
My critical review of Artist and Empire is not meant to portray the ambitious exhibition in a negative light. Any retrospective of a historical event, or period, that has been heavily criticised and controversial, is fraught with sensitivity. Even with a critical lens, there will be areas that could be viewed as a re-glorification of the event. For instance, Andrew Gilbert’s installations aimed to subjugate the power of the Empire, but I was only left with feelings of confusion even after reading the explanatory panel. However, I hope that through this review, I can suggest people to view exhibition critically, particularly with contentious periods of history which require a higher rigour of sensitivity, for it is through this consideration that we can add to the discussion.
(Ps: Interesting aside, the British colonisation of Southeast Asia was largely left out in this review, apart from one bust, Malay Man, that was commissioned as part of a series of ethnographic sculptures for Singapore’s city hall. Artist and Empire will be travelling to Singapore, where its staging may prove to offer a elucidating counterpoint on the absence of Southeast Asian art produced by the Empire.)
Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past
25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016
London SW1P 4RG
Monday – Friday: 10.00 – 18.00
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