Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2018
Alison Smith, David Blayney Brown, and Carol Jacobi, eds. Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past Exh. cat. New York: Abrams, 2016. 256 pp.; 170 color ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9781849763431)
Tate Britain, London, November 25, 2015–April 10, 2016
Installation view, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past, Tate Britain, London, November 25, 2015–April 10, 2016 (photograph © 2016; provided by Tate Britain)

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past is both a fascinating and frustrating compendium of art made since the sixteenth century that either depicts, reflects, or comments upon British colonialism. Written by a team of Tate curators, with contributions by Gus Casely-Hayford, Annie E. Coombes, Paul Gilroy, Nicholas Thomas, and Sean Willcock, this exhibition catalogue seeks to address the legacies of the British Empire: to reconsider how empire was recorded and perceived by those artists actively involved in, or affected by, Britain’s colonial enterprise; to equitably present and reconsider artworks by indigenous or colonized people; to identify and celebrate artistic cross-fertilization and hybrid adaptation; and to examine artistic postcolonial critique.

Following a foreword and general introduction, the publication is divided into six unequally sized sections, replicating the structure of the Tate Britain exhibition that it accompanied. Each section tackles a particular theme or subject and comprises an introductory essay and a catalogue of artworks, generally presented chronologically. Each artwork is illustrated in color and is supplemented by a short essay. In the main, these catalogue texts follow Tate’s house style, including a biography of the artist (if known); a description of the object; information about the sitter, event, or place depicted; and any other relevant information, such as the work’s public reception or acquisition history. These essays are packed with historical detail and written in an accessible manner, explaining art-historical terminology and avoiding jargon. Artworks are usefully cross-referenced by page number, enabling readers to easily navigate the catalogue and to pick and choose the order in which essays are read. Indeed, because the short essays are presented as stand-alone texts, readers do not necessarily have to read the adjoining entries or the section introductions, although this editorial decision results in a modicum of repetition.

That postcolonial theorist Gilroy agreed to write the foreword could be regarded as an endorsement of Tate’s attempt at postcolonial reappraisal. His text is strangely muted, however; he begins by noting Britain’s ignorance of its own past and argues that popular memory has filtered out the corrupt and murderous activities of empire, leaving behind a nostalgic version of heroic gestures and moral superiority. Nonetheless, Gilroy welcomes the exhibition as a timely intervention, noting that art has “the capacity to transform Britain’s understanding of itself” (8).

To her credit, Alison Smith in the introduction addresses some of the issues Gilroy pinpoints. She outlines historical interpretations of the empire, including Britain’s problematic, often-ambivalent relationship with it and the Tate’s position as an imperial institution. If the artworks reproduced in the catalogue are occasionally patchy in subject matter, quality, or geographical reach, she suggests that this reflects the incoherence of the empire, which was an amalgamation of different colonial actors and interest groups. Smith accounts for the limited presentation of slavery, for example, by explaining that few contemporaneous artworks addressing that subject exist; it was too “shameful even to its perpetrators” (12) to be depicted for aesthetic consumption. On this subject, J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) was a significant omission and why more recent artworks addressing slavery were excluded is unclear. Smith’s explanation also masks a problematic limitation at the core of the exhibition. Artist and Empire included only artworks held in British collections. Limiting the parameters of the exhibition in this way resulted in a show that told a history of British museum collecting, which at times appeared ad hoc and subject to personal tastes, the aspirations of corporate collections (such as those of the British East India Company), and, in the later twentieth century, an institutional prejudice that obstructed the acquisition of works by diasporic modernists active in Britain. Nonetheless, Smith usefully introduces Tate’s curatorial approach of reframing empire as a productive ground for cultural exchange. This revisionist position is of course problematic, but the curators attempt throughout to maintain a sensitivity to the empire’s atrocities while identifying its artistic legacy.

The catalogue’s first section, “Mapping and Making,” is concerned with the territorial landmasses of the empire and outlines how maps and cartography were put to colonial service. In his introductory essay David Blayney Brown contends that the power of maps is well understood, but for a general reader unfamiliar with the academic terrain of Michel Foucault or Edward Soja, a few additional sentences on spatial power may have been useful. The catalogue contains works ranging from John Thomas’s pictorial map The Siege of Enniskillen Castle (1593); a sketch of the Polynesian Society Islands made in 1769 by Tupaoa, a Tahitian diplomat; and John Everett Millais’s The North-West Passage (1874).

The section “Trophies of Empire,” which follows, considers how the empire was collected and archived. Paintings and drawings of flora and fauna, landscapes, and architectural typologies are all included here. So too are ethnographic photographs recording different Indian castes, highlighting that the collecting, recording, and classification of people was central to the maintenance of colonial power. Coombes provides an extended discussion of four related items: two looted Benin Edo bronze heads, a photographic print of the imprisoned king of Benin taken in 1897, and a contemporary etching by Tony Phillips addressing how Benin bronzes have been decontextualized within Western art museums.

“Imperial Heroics” starts with a useful definition of history painting and goes on to provide an overview of the genre as a mode of propaganda, memorialization, and celebration in which scenes of heroism or “patrician benevolence” were recorded for distribution “back home.” The subgenre of military art is introduced here, and Smith discusses how the painted battle scene could be harnessed to sway public opinion and strengthen imperial resolve. It is unfortunate, however, that this section is titled as it is. For example, Agostino Brunias’s Sir William Young Conducting a Treaty with the Black Caribs on the Island of St Vincent (ca. 1773) seems to call the nature of imperial heroism into question, and the section’s title does not seem to capture the spectrum of positive and negative representations included. (Perhaps we are meant to read it ironically?)

Caroline Corbeau-Parsons introduces “Power Dressing,” comprising grand-manner portraiture: full length portraits in which the subjects are often dressed in “local” costume. Paintings including Anthony Van Dyke’s William Fielding (ca.1635–6) and Joshua Reynolds’ Captain John Foote (1761–5) depict their subjects in Indian dress and may be regarded as expressions or exertions of power. Corbeau-Parsons does refer, however, to the scholarship of Tara Mayer, who in a 2012 article (“Cultural Cross-Dressing: Posing and Performance in Orientalist Portraiture,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 22:2) asserts that the mimicry may in some cases be a form of “flattery, even homage.” The 1919 portrait by Augustus John of T. E. Lawrence in Arab costume may fall into this category.

The longest section of the book, “Face to Face,” contains a substantial number of works by non-British, non-European artists and addresses the presentation of and self-representation by colonized people and the development of hybrid, transcultural modes of visual expression. As in the previous two sections, portraiture dominates, with some artworks, such as Simon de Passe’s Portrait of Pocahontas Aged 21 (1616), epitomizing the ideal of the noble savage, although Carol Jacobi’s catalogue essay for this painting does debunk the subject’s Disneyfied biography. On the subject of cross-cultural exchange, Indian artist Manchershaw Pithawalla’s paintings are referred to as “optimistic westernization” (following Partha Mitter), while in his discussion of early twentieth-century wood and bronze figure sculptures from Nigeria, Casely-Hayford notes that for “aspirational individuals” the adoption of Western culture could have “palpably positive benefits” (193).

Works from the early twentieth century straddle “Face to Face” and the final section, “Out of Empire,” and there is an uneasy transition from the high imperialism of the Victorian age to the era of independence after 1945. Nonetheless, in “Out of Empire” Carol Jacobi attempts to narrate the rise of anticolonialist and nationalist agendas, as found in Jamini Roy’s Santhal Drummers (ca.1936), which embodies an “aesthetic of the subaltern” (citing Natasha Eaton). Ronald Moody, Benedict (better known as Ben) Enwonwu, and Uzo Egonu are all noted for their engagement with Parisian négritude, and the arrival of Commonwealth artists in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s is recounted. The selection and discussion of Aubrey Williams, Avinash Chandra, Balraj Khanna, and others, however, suggests an overreliance on Rasheed Araeen’s catalogue for his groundbreaking exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain (1989). Here, Sonia Boyce becomes representative a generation of black British artists who rose to prominence in the early 1980s; the Black Audio Film Collective’s Signs of Empire (1983) and Chila Kumari Burman’s Convenience Not Love (1986–7) are but two works that could also have been included, but these suggestions also highlight the absence of overtly confrontational work from the 1980s. Two works by contemporary Australian artists of aboriginal heritage—Judy Watson and Brook Andrews—become tokenistic, although their accompanying texts by Nicholas Thomas are pithy and engaging. Again, these inclusions simply serve to highlight omissions: Where for instance, are examples of contemporary Canadian, New Zealand, or Nigerian artists who are engaging with colonial legacies? Are no works by Rebecca Belmore or George Nuku held in British collections?

In his foreword, Gilroy asserts that although a positive contribution, Artist and Empire “will not be the final word” on the subject, concluding that there is still considerable work to be done. He is cautious and qualifies his praise. Viewed in this spirit, this publication, although partial and despite its flaws, is a useful introduction to the British Empire and its legacies. It collates previously underappreciated works of art, tackles Britain’s skewed and often myopic understanding of empire, and reframes it within a postcolonial discourse. We will have to wait and see if the exhibition and this publication signal an embrace of post- or de-colonial curatorial practice in Britain, but it is nonetheless, a welcome, if tentative, start.

Alice Correia
Research fellow, School of Arts and Media, University of Salford