Entangled Pasts 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change Back

‘stories matter; many stories matter’

Ngozi Adiche, “Ted Talk,” 2009

In the early twenty-first century, our national museums and galleries are at the leading edge of debates about how to re-interpret British history and whose history can be found there. Critical public discussions brought on by Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and other social movements have led museums and galleries across the UK, Europe and the North Atlantic world to ask hard questions about the connections between the past and present, the importance of language and labelling, and the need to include global majority artists across all spheres to be engaged in the conversations we have about the British empire and the slave trade in the future.

With its exhibition, ‘Entangled Pasts 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change’, the Royal Academy, is the latest gallery to begin to excavate and confront its colonial past by bringing together 50 multi-media artists connected to the institution, including Yinka Shonibare, Shahzia Sikander, and Isaac Julien, to help to shape the type of conversation the RA has about ‘art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism-and how it may help set a course for the future’ (’ (Winter 2023 issue of RA Magazine). What results is a thought-provoking, powerful and, at times, simultaneously exhilarating and sobering exhibition, in which the experiences of Black and Brown people during the colonial era are at the centre.

The presence of the Black and Brown experience is evident from the start of exhibition when the visitor, on entering Gallery One, is confronted with an intimate space that sets a reflective tone, explicitly so with the addition of mirrors suspended from the ceiling. The use of these mirrors discourages any temptation for passive viewing and heightens a sense of intimacy, thereby, holding the visitor to account and reminding us of the importance of reflecting upon our own position within these ‘entangled pasts’. As if to model this concept, Francis Harwood’s Bust of A Man, 1758, is positioned in the very centre of the gallery, facing Kerry James Marshall’s, RA, imagined Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, (1776), 2007, leaving the viewer to imagine the conversations the two men might have had.  The central location of the bust also signals to an opportunity for the visitor to also put themselves in conversation with the works on display, challenging all visitors to engage with the complex history that forms the basis of this exhibition, and continues to infiltrate the present.

Despite accepted wisdoms surrounding the identity of the subjects in Gallery One, it is impossible not to be moved by the volume of ‘unknowns’. Of the portraits and figures in this gallery, only Thomas Gainsborough’s, RA, Ignatius Sancho, 1768 is confirmed by name and likeness. All the other persons depicted are either ‘unknown’, or have their identities or likenesses speculated at. The title of Gallery One is ‘Portraits and Presence’, but the uncertainty surrounding the sitters’ identities encourages the visitor to question what is ‘absent’ and also to reflect on the type of ‘presence’ Black and Brown people were truly afforded as subjects of works of art. With scant accuracy surrounding naming, this gallery underscores the sitters’ roles as objects rather than subjects, where identity was not deemed a key piece of information for those consuming the art. Consequently, the visitor is required to experience a myriad of feelings arising from the privilege of ‘knowing’ one’s identity; feelings that remain throughout the exhibition.

The theme of identity, particularly racial and ethnic identity, and the privileges of power that often determines whether an identity is stable or fractured, known or unknown, is a theme that resurfaces in multiple ways in each of the exhibition galleries. In Gallery Two, for instance, are works responding to the theme of ‘Conflict and Ambition’ and it is uprooted identity that comes to the fore here, most notably with Hew Locke’s, RA, imposing and centrally-located Armada, 2017 – 2019; a flotilla of boats suspended from the ceiling in various states of disrepair. The large-scale installation is the culmination of a project that took two years to create, evolving into its current form and eclectic appearance. Hanging precariously from the ceiling, Locke’s Armada appears both stable and unstable, mirroring our current turbulent political climate with our political leaders’ ‘stop the boats’ agenda, encouraging the visitor to question if global migration of bodies is only acceptable when it is economically profitable.

The force of Locke’s Armada resounds around the gallery, with a range of historical art engulfing the visitor with a relentless reiteration of the dehumanising impact of colonialism. How the visitor interprets and responds to the history being told by these paintings is shaped by curators, not only through the paintings and the labels displayed, but also by the gaps and silences that result from the work and information not included. Two of the portraits in this gallery that come to mind in this regard are David Martin’s portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, 1779, and John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, 1758, both of which are situated at the end of the gallery, on opposite sides of the archway into Gallery Three.

Dido Elizabeth and her second cousin, Elizabeth, were raised from an early age at Kenwood House, London, in the household of William Murray who, as Lord Chief Justice, presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans. Mary and Elizabeth Royall were the daughters of Issac Royall, a slaver in Antigua and one of the wealthiest merchants in Massachusetts. The differences between the Murray and Royall household are made clear in the portraits’ respective labels. The positioning of the portraits in the Gallery Two also underlines the similarities between them: these portraits are about the wealth and social status of the sitters’ families, yet the narratives each portrait conveys about the sitters, the relationship between them, and about their families, are complex and nuanced. Unfortunately, that complexity is missing from the information provided by the labels, most notably in the label for the Copley portrait where it states that the only clue to the source of their wealth is ‘in the Antiguan hummingbird’ alighting on Mary’s tiny white hand.

This is not to suggest that the ‘Entangled Pasts’ exhibition is not radical in its design and ambition. Indeed, the curators’ intention to open up rather than shut down conversations is made most apparent by the shock the visitor feels on entering Gallery 10, devoted to ‘Constructing Whiteness’. Few of the conversations that our national galleries are having currently about colonialism and Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, have engaged in such an unflinching conversation about ‘whiteness’, in part due to the works included in this gallery. For instance, adjacent to one wall is Betye Saar’s searing commentary on race and women’s labour, I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, (1998), which is composed of a white sheet embroidered with the KKK monogram and pegged to a clothesline; a black steamed iron chained to the ironing board below. Saar’s work is situated directly opposite Frank Dicksee’s, Startled (1892), in which two girls struggle to hide their nakedness, their white-skin made luminescent by their vibrant red hair. As RA president between 1924-28, Dicksee gave a lecture to his students in which he stated: “Our ideal of beauty must be the white man’s.”. A transcript from the lecture is included in the gallery and the meanings embedded within these works are clear. Yet, the directions conversations take about whiteness in the gallery are multiple and fluid, and they not only frame how the visitor engages with the works in the remaining galleries, but also reframe how they remember the works in the galleries that came before.

As Bernadine Evaristo observed in her commentary on the exhibition, a ‘democracy that can face its own past with a balanced but critical gaze, instead of extolling its virtues without critique, is a mature and admirable one.’ (Winter 2023 issue of RA Magazine). By devoting the final gallery to a new generation of RA artists, the ‘Entangled Pasts’ exhibition suggests that the Royal Academy may be one of our national galleries paving the way toward such a democracy. The central work in this gallery, entitled ‘Where to From Here?’, is Olu Ogunnaike’s I’d Rather Stand, which reconsiders Trafalgar Square’s ever-changing fourth plinth through the lens of history. Fashioned from ‘offcuts of luxury veneers’, first sourced during the British Empire, Ogunnaike reminds us that these plundered materials are ‘remnants of empire’ – as we all are.

For the authors of this review, the Royal Academy have largely achieved their aim for this exhibition by starting a courageous conversation about ‘art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism’. The extent to which that conversation continues and, perhaps most importantly, will include all of us-RA members and non-members- is a question that remains with the visitor as they exit the exhibition, leaving the vibrant figures that make up Lubania Himid’s installation, Naming the Money, 2004, as they continue their joyous procession behind.  Perhaps we find an answer to the question of inclusion as we enter Burlington House Courtyard and are confronted by Tavares Strachan’s The First Supper, 2023, an arresting monumental bronze sculpture which, in reimagining Leonardo’s The Last Supper, ‘talks about mankind’s evolutionary origins in Africa’. (Strachan)