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Artist and Empire – Tate Britain

The ambitious collection Artist and Empire comes at a curious time, as it is perhaps the first large-scale show made in response to the British Empire in the early twenty-first century. The great reactionary Edmund Burke recognised something true of the French Revolution: that once you eschew traditions and customs as the basis for your community, there is no going back. Such irreversibility forces newness into the world forever. In Hew Locke’s ‘Restoration‘, situated in the last room, the statue of that member of Parliament- whose constituency was at one time, the second or third largest slaving port in the world- stands photographed, beads, chains, shells, and gold coins, overflowing off the piece. Tate notes that ‘[Burke] was an internal critic of Empire and began the process that ended the British slave trade in 1807 [with Wilberforce]’, as if a handful of men could through the moral indignation in the oratory alone bring about the economic cessation of dozens of colonies, protectorates and territories worldwide, the biggest the world has ever known.

Neat schematic ‘great-man’ simplicity like this and groupings of all kinds too, should be always be greeted wearily, but nevertheless this collection problematises itself to be considered self-critical enough: divided into six rooms, the collections’ last reprising the themes of the previous five:  ‘Mapping and Marking’, ‘Trophies of Empire’, ‘Imperial Heroics’, ‘Power Dressing’, ‘Face to Face’ and the last which is split into two: ‘Out of Empire’ and ‘Legacies of Empire’.

The centrepieces ranging from Asafo flag collages by Fante artists to Thomas Ona Odulate’s angular wooden sculptures of Europeans from  the 1920s and 1930s all show how far ambivalence and opposition are latent in the first moments of the colonial encounter. Contemporary Scottish artist Andrew Gilbert’s installation ‘British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem’ (2015) returns the gaze of primitive tribal tableaux in which military figures, complete with teacups, regimental leather fetishes, high heels, and sawdust become the subject of ethnographic scrutiny. Perhaps mostly playfully this piece is anachronistically placed in the ‘Imperial Heroics‘ room, a room of powerful visual propaganda. Perhaps, however, works like this are doomed to repeat the same cycle of inverting the gaze.

The meaning of this art, as with all art, changes with time, along with the persona of the artist. It is hard to imagine the earnestness with which historical paintings, such as Thomas Jones Barker’s ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ (1863) would have been received: depicting a youthful Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to an African Prince who is bowing down before her, after asking at the English court what was the secret of England’s greatness. And yet, as Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’ (1858) confirms -where a substantial Britannia plunges a sword into the chest of a tiger, as punishment for the Indian ‘mutiny’ of 1857 – it displays a hubris that today is almost unimaginable even if the residual and substantial effects of older kinds of imperial sovereignty and wealth extraction are still with us.

Elizabeth Butler’s oil painting ‘The Remnants of an Army’ (1879) also in the ‘Imperial Heroics’ room portrays a destroyed Dr William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jellabad, apparently the sole survivor of a British force of thousands during the second Anglo-Afghan war. It will surely be a highlight, said the exhibition’s lead curator, Alison Smith, as it can be read in different ways. Once seen as a lament for a heroic defeat, fresh interpretation informed by research leans heavily towards an indictment of a foolish campaign; not least due to the cyclical attempts of military interventions to conquer Afghanistan, the painting has re-entered Tate’s conservation. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, admitted: ‘It is an interesting question as to what impact it might have had, had it been hanging here 15 years ago’.

Other than Nicholas Pocock’s ink drawing of captives at gunpoint and William Blake’s shackled agrarian workers awaiting liberation by the Royal Navy, artistic production has done much to obscure or invert the explicit representation of bodies of the enslaved and the commodities they produced: the tea, sugar, and tobacco that became part of British identity. Despite bearing witness to the centrality of the body in almost every room— ‘there is very little visual evidence of the horrors of the slave trade,’ main curator Alison Smith acknowledges, instead being ‘conspicuous by its absence’.

The exhibit comes at a crucial time in the twenty-first century, when the fate of the arbitrary borders drawn after World War I by the great powers are being redrawn, and the appetite to draw up new ones along sectarian and ethnic identities is with us. The strong sense of the whole collection, as Maya Jaggi writes is, of the inter-subjectivity fostered by mutual portraiture and the growth of a vaster geographical context, recapturing a sense of the ceaseless transoceanic and transcontinental movement of empire: from dress to styles of art. Despite an assumed, basic knowledge of the economic workings of empire by the viewer, Paul Gilroy’s contention in the foreword to the collection’s catalogue that “the inability to come to terms with these disputed legacies ...has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance,” resonates with an inclination that Tate be anything insular, even if unresolvedness of being both “British” and formerly de- or post-colonial continues.

The diligent and non-diligent alike will learn a staggering amount from this history of empire, a history of the world, in 200 art objects. Considered in its totality, the collection constitutes a reading practice, where one guiding strand –the material conditions of the imperial past- may vibrate against others.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain, 25 November-10 April.

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Nicholas Pan