Confronting the Imperialist Elephant in the Room

Confronting the Imperialist Elephant in the Room

The British Empire was vast. In spatial and temporal terms its scope was global and long lived. Culturally, economically, and politically its influence on world history is indelible. Any book, let alone an exhibition, which tries to examine such an enormous topic is an ambitious one. The history of the British Empire is complex and contentious. Multi-layered and multi-facetted, venturing down this particular rabbit hole can potentially lead us anywhere and everywhere. Hence, when I heard that Tate Britain was putting on an exhibition, entitled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (until April 10th, 2016), I was more than intrigued to see how they might choose to tackle such an all-encompassing subject.

John Thomas - The Siege of Enniskillen Castle, 1593 (British Library)

Exploring perceptions of empire is perhaps a good choice for a unifying theme. It simultaneously lends itself to a range of perspectives, both historical and current, on what was the British imperial project. It also enables us to examine multiple viewpoints from outside and from within the Empire itself, looking at it through the eyes of those who actively created, lived, or were caught up within the bounds of British colonialism, and likewise of those who have since inherited its everyday after-effects and legacy. The perceptions of the artist, as coloniser and as colonised, as well as descendent, allow the exhibition curators a wide and seemingly all-encompassing scope across which to comprehensively illustrate and examine this theme. And as such, this exhibition certainly meets its intended goal. You can perhaps gauge this by the conflicting reactions it has generated – from the enraptured (see The Guardian), to the deeply disappointed (see The Telegraph), to the appreciative but somewhat bemused (see The Financial Times). 

Hausa, Northern Nigeria - Leatherwork panel depicting colonial scenes, c.1940 (Collection of Michael Graham-Stewart)

In many ways it is an exhibition which demands much of from the visitor – it requires time and attention to fully contemplate and absorb. Happily the exhibition is laid out very spaciously over the course of six rooms. On the day I visited (a Saturday) it was reasonably busy, but there was plenty of space to amble round – such that if there was a momentary knot of people looking at a particular work it was easy to circulate around them and return once the crowd had thinned. And this was good, because many of the works displayed in this show demand a close and sustained examination, particularly the wonderful array of intricately detailed maps on show in the first room; whilst other works, such as some of the giant paintings, require the viewer to step back sufficiently far enough to fully take in the enormous effect such works have been designed to convey. The depth and range of media which have been incorporated in this exhibition is commendable too – we see West African Yoruba wood carvings and Benin bronze heads as well as Western oil paintings and maps; we see early photographs alongside intricately carved ivory models; we see colonial era flags as well as modern works of art – it’s a beguiling mix of ethnography, propaganda, memorial, scientific study, and retrospective reckoning. It’s little wonder the critics in their newspaper reviews are so disunited.

Unknown Photographer - A Man from Malaita, late 19thC (British Museum)

Edward Armitage - Retribution, 1858 (Leeds Museums & Galleries)

Empire is a divisive topic. Where do you stand on the British Empire? … It’s a question which we clearly haven’t yet managed to collectively answer in Britain (see this article in The Guardian on a recent YouGov poll). Some say it was ultimately a force for good which created and shaped the modern world; some say it was at best an arrogant misguided adventure which did more harm than good and we are still contending with the pains of its wounds (for instance, a prominent recent example being the contentious "Rhodes Must Fall" campaign) – either way, no one can contest the fact that Empire undoubtedly changed our world irrevocably, its legacy lingers long into our present time. So many of the global systems which operate today have their roots deep in that colonial past. Empire affected everyone on the planet whether directly or indirectly. Free trade, slavery, the modern political concept of nations, the exchange of goods and ideas, the displacement and migration of people – every society on the planet, from Tudor times to the present, has been shaped in some way by the processes of Empire. Traditional societies were subsumed by the mushrooming expansion of Imperial superpowers, and whilst much of the diversity of human societies has been homogenised by a greater interconnected global community arguably there has also been a great cultural transference too. Languages have borrowed words and phrases from each other; diverse cuisines from far flung places across the globe can now be found cooking and being consumed side-by-side on many of the high streets and downtown areas of major towns and cities across the world; the major religions have spread across the continents beyond the regional bounds of their centres of origin. Because of Empire the world is now a global diaspora of interconnected peoples. Empire is everywhere. 

John Griffiths - A Sannyasi - A Religious Mendicant, 1882 (Tate)

Empire clearly interests us, but it doesn’t quite fully engage us. At least, not yet. Perhaps, in part, this may have been a contributory cause to the recent untimely demise of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol? This is a past which is perhaps still on the cusp for us in Britain? … It’s far enough away in time that it is gradually becoming the unfamiliar past, yet it’s still near enough to be an unspoken part of our present. It’s often the elephant in the room. This particular elephant is big enough to describe and perhaps even marvel at with awe, but it’s still accompanied by awkward and inconvenient details, much like the magnificent and majestic elephants of the British Raj which were accompanied and cared for by indigenous mahouts, it’s these subaltern details which are still too real and raw, still all too near (see George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant). Supplanting the comfortable old blunderbuss of pride and pomposity, a creeping sense of colonial guilt increasingly gnaws at any sense of nostalgia. We still feel the effects of Empire. Hence I think it is only right that we should think about Empire – we shouldn’t shy away from it; instead we should think about what it was; what it meant to those who lived it; and, what it means to us who now live in its shadow. 

James Sant - Captain Colin Mackenzie, c.1842-1844 (National Army Museum)

This exhibition is a rare attempt to do just that. It begins sensibly enough with the grounding of Empire within a geographical perspective. After all, much of the early imperialist’s exploits were based on exploration – travellers and traders went in search of goods and markets, of riches and resources, and scientists as well as speculators went in search of information and ideas. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first imperial feelers were put out by the nations of the West in tandem with the new ideas which came to the fore in the era of the Enlightenment. Hence, the first room of this exhibition examines the theme of ‘Mapping and Marking’. Surveying and making accurate charts were the essential tools of Empire. Following earlier Portuguese and Spanish navigators, English mariners and privateers of the Elizabethan period began an era which perhaps culminated in the famous ‘voyages of discovery’ by such men as Sir Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook. The East India Company grew from its first footholds on foreign shores, evolving into what eventually became a broader project of British Imperialism with its civilising mission founded upon the promotion of global free trade. The maps in this room convey the precision of that curiosity, the pride in their scientific accuracy, as well as the global reach of that sense of ambition and power. Matthew Flinders’ General Chart of Terra Australis … Showing the parts Explored between 1798-1803 (1804) is a remarkable depiction of the Australian continent – recognisably accurate in shape when compared to today’s maps even though the unexplored portions of the coastline remain blank, this was also the first map to use the term ‘Australia’ which was later officially adopted by the British Admiralty in 1824. The main revelation in this room for me though was the fact that the artist, Wenceslaus Hollar, who is perhaps best remembered for his beautifully detailed panorama of London, accompanied and documented a British expedition to Tangier in 1668.

Wenceslaus Hollar - The Settlement at Whitby, West of Tangier, c.1669 (British Museum)

Walter Crane - Imperial Federation, 1886 (WikiCommons)

The second room, ‘Trophies of Empire’, continues the science and empire theme (which most fascinates me) by looking at the ways in which art, artefacts, and natural history specimens became a particular locus, a pivot upon which learned individuals and the newly burgeoning scientific societies sought to collect, study and order “natural and artificial curiosities” into systems of knowledge. The introductory text to this particular room neatly sums up this theme: “Collecting for research or to develop expertise was an elite occupation, often shared between colonial and indigenous ruling classes. Collections sometimes served as records of diplomacy or negotiation. Much else was acquired fortuitously, opportunistically, or as souvenirs by people who would not have thought of themselves as collectors at all. Loot, barter, gift and purchase by soldiers, sailors, explorers, missionaries and traders all contributed to Empire’s collections. This room shows some of the different ways in which the world was brought to Britain through the various transactions of Empire …” 

Sir John Everett Millais - The North-West Passage, 1874 (Tate)

This description certainly put me in mind of my own family’s involvement with Empire, as like many British homes, I have a couple of family heirlooms in the form of two small pieces of furniture which were brought back from India in the early years of the twentieth century. My great-grandfather was a Farrier in the British Army and for a time between the World Wars he was sent to serve in India, hence he acquired these two beautifully carved wooden tables which (perhaps somewhat ironically) now sit in my flat piled high with all the books I’m currently studying on the history of empire. 

Rudolf Swoboda - Muhammad Hussain, 1886 (Royal Collection Trust)

Some of the works in this second room show the wonderful confluence of art and learning which occurred in places such as India. I was particularly struck by the works of Shakh Zain-ud-Din (or Zayn-al-Din). We are told here that he was one of a small group of Muslim artists from Patna, who worked for Sir Elijah and Lady Impey and Sir William and Lady Jones of Calcutta. He was commissioned to make beautiful botanical and zoological studies, and in doing so he skilfully managed to blend the beautifully meticulous Mughal flair for detail with the European ideals of composition, methods and materials, thereby pioneering what later became known as ‘the Company School’ – so named after the East India Company, the trading company which first established British colonial control over the Indian subcontinent.

Rudolf Swoboda - Bakshiram, 1886 (Royal Collection Trust)

This and the subsequent three rooms explore the Orientalist and the indigenous eye – focussing on how Western and non-Western peoples were perceived and represented in works which are both objectively ethnographic depictions as well as colonially-contrived works of boastful propaganda. We see how in paintings and photographs the artistic subjects chosen are carefully arranged to convey particular themes and messages – either objectifying, categorising, or stereotyping according to varying extents of realism or jingoism – and yet several of the labels highlight how popular readings of some of these works have changed over time. We may be surprised to learn that some works were received in much the same way at the time they were created as we might feel critical of them today. Whereas others which were once looked down upon or dismissed are now much more sympathetically received today – for instance the remarkably vivid and life-like portraits of Maori persons painted by Charles Frederick Goldie, which he himself called his “Ethnographs”, these were once seen as objective and coldly scientific, yet they are now valued for their realism and faithfulness to detail, and are appreciated by modern Maori communities as a record of their customs and traditions. 

William Barnes Wollen - The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gundermuck, 1842 (Essex Regiment Museum, Chelmsford)

Lady Elizabeth Butler - The Remnants of an Army, 1879 (Tate)

In this way we can see that so many artworks can be perceived and appreciated as documents, not simply as records but also as items of changing meaning. Our engagement with, and understanding of the past can similarly be informed and enriched by our engagement and understanding of such works of art as artworks in themselves. In this way the exhibition’s final room, which examines contemporary responses to Empire, is a necessary and logical conclusion to such an all-encompassing and ambitious exhibition. But, as with much modern art, for me at least, my responses to these artworks were markedly more subjective. I’m not exactly sure why – whether it comes down to questions of aesthetics or interpretation – some of these artworks ‘worked for me’ whereas others definitely didn’t. Some were undoubtedly profound and poignant, whilst others seemed contrived and clichéd. But I’m sure that would be true for me of all kinds of contemporary art, inevitably some of it speaks to the viewer whereas other pieces leave us cold. Perhaps it is easier to objectify and comprehend cliché and condescension if it is seen as historical rather than of the present? Perhaps these works are too near the now for me, whereas works contemporary with the Empire are sufficiently distant for me to rationalise and objectify? 

Simon de Passe - Pocahontas, aged 21 (British Museum)

For me, in the context of this exhibition, that transition from the old and the ethnographic to the new and the modern, was a little too abrupt – perhaps because I was too wound up still in my own interests and preoccupations with the theme of empire. Some works did seem interesting, particularly the odd juxtaposition of some, such as Andrew Gilbert’s sculpture British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th July 1879 (2015), which pondered the historical counterfactual of a Zulu victory over the British, with British soldiers being paraded as ‘curious, exotic and primitive.’ Similarly, Gilbert’s inversion of Walter Crane’s famous map of the British Empire, Imperial Federation (1886), the original of which appears in the exhibition’s first room, in his All Roads Lead to Ulundi (2015), which renders the British Empire as a ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee Advert’, plays on the ideas and iconography of imperial triumphalism and war; gendered Western-heroism versus deposed indigenous leaders; and the more recognisable motifs of trade and capitalist consumerism. Whilst some of this seems obvious it is still provocative and thoughtful, but for me it sat as oddly amateur and makeshift in stark contrast to the clear skill and artistry of both western and non-western artists found in the preceding rooms with their more historical focus. That said though, this is a first rate and challengingly ambitious exhibition. An interesting look at a strangely neglected and conflicted topic which seems to stand like a shadow in the background of so many contemporary issues which we continue to live with and encounter in our everyday lives even today.

Charles Edwin Fripp - The Last Stand at Isandwana, 1885 (National Army Museum)

November 25, 2015 – April 10, 2016
Tate Britain

George William Joy - The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum 26 January 1885 (Leeds Museum & Galleries)

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