“Curatorial Conversation” – Black Atlantic (Fitzwilliam Museum) & Entangled Pasts (Royal Academy) Back

Through its Entangled Pasts exhibition, the Royal Academy joins several British galleries and museums with eighteenth-century origins in reckoning with its participation in slavery and colonialism. London’s British Museum is confronting the fact that Hans Sloane, whose collection enabled the Museum’s foundation in 1753, was a slave-owner. Their Enlightenment Gallery especially has changed: a bust of Sloane was removed in 2020. And last year, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, which was founded by the bequest of the viscount Richard Fitzwilliam (1745-1816), launched Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance, the first of three exhibitions acknowledging that much of the viscount’s wealth derived from the transatlantic slave trade. The choices made in Entangled Pasts merit comparison with decisions made in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery and in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s 2023 exhibition. As a supplement to the review of Entangled Pasts by Jo Bryc

e and Karen Lipsedge, I will reflect further on the ‘conversations’ that the curators construct.

Edward Penny’s ‘Lord Clive receiving from the Nawab of Bengal the grant of the sum of money for Lord Clive’s Fund for the relief of distressed soldiers and their dependents’ (1772-1773) was first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s 1772 summer exhibition. In the painting, the former Governor of Bengal, Robert Clive, stands next to the Nawab, Najim-ud-daula, holding the grant in one hand and gesturing with his other to a group of wounded British soldiers, while the dependents occupy the middle ground of the composition. The Nawab, with his face in strict profile, is two-dimensional in comparison to the fuller British figures. A little over 250 years later, on the painting’s return to the RA for Entangled Pasts, the curators explain the representational alterity of the Nawab by placing Penny’s work alongside port

raits from a seventeenth-century Mughal album, ‘Portraits of Hindu Princes and Chiefs’, much admired by the RA’s founder (and Penny’s friend), Joshua Reynolds. Evidently, Penny – who did not witness the scene he depicted, and indeed had never been to India – coopted this distinctive style of portraiture for his own composition, resulting in an aesthetic othering of the Nawab. The thoughtful hang, one of many such decisions, uncovers Penny’s occluded appropriation of Mughal art.

This tremendously well-researched exhibition offers numerous thought-provoking instances of Black artists responding to and reworking eighteenth-century images. As Bryce and Lipsedge note, Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776’ (2007) is arranged so that Moorhead faces Francis Hayman’s ‘Bust of a Man’ (1758), as if the two are in dialogue across the centuries. Only one work has been attributed to Moorhead: a lost portrait on which the frontispiece for the enslaved Black poet Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects (1773) was based. The book’s frontispiece (displayed in a later room of the exhibition), shows Wheatley in profile, thoughtful head in hand, with these words encircling the image: ‘Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston.’ Marshall’s imagining of Moorhead in his studio includes a sketch of Wheatley in the background, with her head in her hand just as in the frontispiece. But the demure profile of Wheatley has been rotated 90 degrees, so that she fully faces the viewer with a scrutinising gaze.

 A later room offers powerful instances of Black artists responding to images by white Europeans, from Wheatley’s poem inspired by Royal Academician Richard Wilson’s painting of a scene in Ovid to Barbara Walker’s 2020 print foregrounding a Black figure in Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (another scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses). This room also couples Margaret Burroughs’s linocut ‘Black Venus’ (1957) with an engraving of the Royal Academician Thomas Stothard’s ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus, from Angola to the West Indies’ (1794). But I do not think Burroughs fits into this Wheatley-Walker tradition of conversation with the artistic past. Burroughs, an African-American artist, claimed that her image – of a Black woman being borne across the sea on a shell, surrounded by mythical creatures – was a reworking of Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. As this exhibition reveals, however, Stothard’s ‘Sable Venus’, which started life as the frontispiece for a book defending the slave trade, is the most direct source of Burroughs’s ‘Black Venus’. In a fascinating contribution to the excellent, generously-illustrated exhibition catalogue, Cora Gilroy-Ware suggests that the citation of Botticelli allows Burroughs, among other things, to associate African-American women with an icon of white European beauty. However, I wonder if there is not also something strategic in the deliberate exclusion of Stothard. Perhaps part of Burroughs’s radicalism consists in reversing the usual direction of appropriation, in which a high-status artist silently makes use of the products of a marginalised person or culture (the dynamic Entangled Pasts identifies in Penny’s painting). This puts the exhibition in something of a bind. ‘Black Venus’ attempts to erase its racist source, and by exhibiting Stothard’s image alongside Burroughs’s the curators undo this erasure, indeed risk re-canonising the long-forgotten Academician’s once-celebrated work. While modern and contemporary art can often fruitfully be understood as in conversation with the sources they rework, the case of ‘Black Venus’ led me to wonder how far there can be a one-size-fits-all model for this mode of understanding.

Perhaps the most pervasive form of dialogue in any exhibition is between the artwork and its caption. Entangled Pasts’s captions are unobtrusive but illuminating: new light is cast on Benjamin West’s notoriously unfinished ‘American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain’ (1783-1819) by the observation that the slave-trading British diplomat Richard Oswald was unwilling to be painted; and the plantation-derived wealth that allowed the Royall family to commission John Singleton Copley’s ‘Mary and Elizabeth Royall’ (c. 1758) is revealed to have subtly entered the picture in the form of an Antiguan hummingbird on Mary’s hand. In each case, the captions show what the works themselves tried to invisibilise. But an excerpt from Robin Coste Lewis’s magisterial 2015 poem, ‘Voyage of the Sable Venus’, which appears on a wall of the exhibition, gives pause for thought. Lewis’s text, which takes its title from Stothard, is composed of the titles of and catalogue entries for materials featuring Black women, interrogating the ways institutions have perpetuated – and, through revising titles and entries in recent years, tried to disguise their perpetuation of – racist ideologies. Lewis’s challenge – to reflect not only on the racism encoded in the artworks but also in their curation – is an interesting framework in which to set Entangled Pasts. It largely rises to the challenge. Confronting the RA’s institutional history, captions discuss Royal Academicians’ investment in the slave trade and colonialist enterprises, expose racist and orientalist ideologies in their aesthetics, and acknowledge the whiteness of the RA, which elected its first Black member (Frank Bowling, whose extraordinary ‘Middle Passage’ (1970) is exhibited here) in 2005.

Nonetheless, there are moments when the need to recognise Black history competes with the need to recognise a more uncomfortable history. Take Thomas Rowlandson’s etching, ‘Richard Cosway, Maria Cosway and Ottobah Cugoano’ (1784 or c. 1790). The celebrated Black abolitionist Cugoano was the Cosways’ servant, and in this etching he stands, bending slightly as he serves grapes to the seated Cosways. Written on the etching itself are two titles, perhaps by the artist and an earlier curator. Unlike the title in the caption, however, they name only ‘Mr. & Mrs. Cosway’. In asserting Cugoano’s presence without comment on the change in title, do the curators obscure the lack of parity which the image, when seen alongside its original title, documents so starkly? Similarly, whereas Clive is the passive subject of the current title of Penny’s painting – ‘Lord Clive receiving [a grant] from the Nawab of Bengal’ – its original title in the Royal Academy’s 1772 summer exhibition catalogue exposes Clive’s agency in extracting that ‘grant’ more forcefully: ‘Lord Clive explaining to the Nabob the situation of the invalids in India; at the same time shewing him a deed whereby he relinquishes Meer Jaffier’s legacy, five lacke of rupees [i.e. 500 000 rupees], to the Honourable East India Company, for the support of a military fund.’

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Black Atlantic exhibition and the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery offer other ways of confronting curatorial complicity in colonialist and racist violence. In Black Atlantic, curators preferred the term ‘unrecorded maker’ over ‘unknown artist’, to highlight the role of archivists, curators, and other caretakers of heritage in deciding who and what is worth recording. In the British Museum, the Enlightenment Gallery holds a Taino stool from the Caribbean. Curators have now placed a mirror beneath it so that one can see that this item’s provenance was carved into its underside: it was donated by a missionary, who was given it by a freed slave. This mirror, reflecting the colonial history previously hidden from public view, indicates curators’ reflections on how best to address their own troubling entanglement with Britain’s past. With almost a third of the 93 items in the catalogue belonging to the eighteenth century, Entangled Pasts is another thoughtful, inevitably imperfect attempt to grapple with our period’s legacy in today’s museums.