458 million people, 13 million square miles, a fifth of the
world’s population, a sun that never set. Some see the Empire as Britain’s
proudest moment, most as one of its darkest. Either way; if a London museum is
to mount an exhibition dedicated to the British Empire, it had better be damn well
perfect. This 2015 Tate Britain attempt falls short of the mark.
This highly inclusive show is an attempt to understand the horrors and victories of colonialism through it's 'visual culture'; which could mean anything from the last 400 years, from any country, that is remotely related to the British Empire. We have aboriginal depictions of British soldiers, looted African treasures, imperial maps and exotic costumes. Ceremonial Nigerian woodcarvings sit alongside European Old Masters; photographs of tattooed Maoris hang next to Native American headdresses and portraits of Western circumnavigators.
There couldn’t be a better time for Artist and Empire. Our
front-pages are dominated with the Empire’s aftershocks: the refugee crises, the
effects of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued IRA arrests, debates on
cultural appropriation, slave labour, horrifying acts of jihad and an escalation
of Islamophobia. There have been more explicit references to Imperial Britain’s
past, too. (Remember that George Clooney, Elgin Marbles, Parthenon-Pantheon
Our colonial past has never been
more relevant, but perhaps unsurprisingly, we don’t like to talk about it. In our British way, we’re prone to sweeping all the nastiness, all the slavery and marauding, under the Persian
rug. Artist and Empire should have raked
up our Imperial history, dragged into the open and forced us to come to terms
with it. Instead, we’re presented with a
confused, lop-sided and, at times, downright dull exhibition.
Which isn’t to say it’s all bad.
There’s an embarrassment of riches on display at this Tate Britain show. The
first room, dedicated to ‘Maps and Marking’ gives us some wonderful examples of
Imperial cartography. We’re shown a 16th Century military map of the
siege at Enniskillen Castle. A gorgeous little thing, it depicts English
Captain Captain John Dowdall and his army recapturing the Irish stronghold from
Hugh Maguire, the rebellious Lord of Fermanagh. The map screams of the power of
the Tudor state; Dowdall stands tall at the centre, directing the assault.
There are no Gaelic defenders to be seen; they cower behind the defences, their
muskets quivering in the air. The only Irish faces we see are those on spears at the
English camp. The message is clear: do not rebel, lest your head end up on a
stick, too. This piece is a wonderful
illustration that maps are not factual documents, rather representations of some
subjective truth that is liable to change.
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896, 1874, Oil paint on canvas Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894
There are some big names on these
walls; Millais’ glorious The North-West
Passage: ‘It might be done, and England should do it’ dominates the first
room. William Blake’s murky, beguiling The
Spiritual Form of Nelson guiding Leviathan is a strange and wonderful
metaphor for the naval victories of the Napoleonic wars . Singer-Sargent,
Joshua Reynolds and Anthony Van-Dyck are all represented with enormous court
portraits. A painting by George Stubbs, most famous for his horsey pictures,
is perhaps the focal point of exhibition. A cheetah and two Indian handlers
stand incongruously in the rolling English countryside, as an ill-fated stag looks on in alarm. This is perhaps Stubbs’ most arresting picture; sublime and
a touch ridiculous, it’s a pleasure to behold.
Our favourite piece in the
exhibition, though, is the likeness of Pocahontas. This miniature shows the
Native American princess in European finery, from her time as a hostage. She
has been ‘civilised’ by the European invaders: the epitome of a romanticised
‘Noble Savage’. A truly fascinating object.
With such a wealth of treasures,
it’s a shame that the exhibition has been laid out as it has. Eschewing
geography and chronology, the rooms have been organised in terms of ‘art
practice’. Whilst this makes for some striking juxtapositions, the result is
confusing, and incoherent. Why not organise the show chronologically?
Especially as the last room, 'Legacies of Empire', is lazily made up of anything
contemporary that addresses race.
There were also far too few
explicit references to slavery and plundering (Though we liked contemporary artist Hew Locke’s Restoration series, in which he has embellished colonial statues with gold coins, shells and trade beads.) This avoidance of the issue seems ridiculous and cowardly, given
the huge amount of the exhibition which was spent on boring 18th
Century military paintings. Where was the outrage? At times it was just as
though we were inhabiting the same grasping Orientalist mindset, the same obsession with the exotic, as the original colonisers. What an earth is the point of that?
Unless you did a history degree,
you can expect to do a great deal of wall-reading, which detracts from the
emotional heft of the objects on show. Does anyone actually care about the
first ever map where Australia is called Australia, and not New Holland? Probably
There’s a lot to love here
individually. But this show is lily-livered, flat and somewhat confused. A
missed opportunity for the museum to do something incredibly important. What a shame.
|What||Artist and Empire, Tate Britain|
|Where||Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Pimlico (underground)|
25 Nov 15 – 10 Apr 16, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Price||£16.00 (without donation £14.50) Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)|
|Website||Click here for more details|