Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Colonial Past @ The Tate Britain

This article was originally published in the SOAS Spirit, the newspaper of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, U.K.

Firstly, ‘past’ is a misnomer, no? The tactical use of Britain and not the ‘U.K.’ hides the fact that the empire still continues in Northern Ireland. Interestingly enough, to align with this historiography, there are no exhibits of any aspects of empire in Ireland in the exhibit.

So does the exhibit do what it claims to? To ‘Face’ Britain’s colonial past? Of course not, even though other popular reviews in the media call is daring and blunt and other words associated with bravery. The exhibit is a mostly chronological narrative of Empire across the world (except for contemporary UK, as mentioned), with artefacts consisting of portraits, sculptures, craft, maps, paintings and other visual art. As one of the people with whom I went stated, this exhibition could essentially be yet another Victorian World Fair, simply transplanted in time. It isn’t particularly nostalgic or proud but is entirely from a British perspective that whitewashes the horror of colonialism as experienced by the colonized and over-sympathizes the British losses in Colonies. Moreover, the narrative of ‘discovery’ that defines the first two large rooms is trite, old, and not constructive in forming even a smidgeon of nuance in the British public’s understanding of Empire.

For me, as an outsider, it was interesting seeing the British perspective of colonization. Not that I empathized with it but it was useful to understand how propaganda worked and see the material culture and categorization that shaped ‘knowledge’ as we experience it post-colonization. However, what is abhorrent about this exhibition is that it puts the onus of understanding Empire on the observer. There is no explanation of colonial practices, none of brutality, no explanation of the detrimental consequences that colonial categorization had on world knowledge. The discovery rooms – with its maps, tribal artefacts, categories of people, classifications of animals and plants (named of course after colonial botanists and zoologists) – does not refer explicitly to the fundamental manner that European physical and social science completely altered global knowledge. It is such a wasted opportunity because there are so many incredible artefacts on display, so many opportunities to discuss even vaguely (or bluntly) the relations of colonization with contemporary skewed global knowledge.

My other discontent was the absence of artist in this exhibit. Apart from brief mentions regarding singular works, this exhibit really was more a documentation of Empire rather than an exhibit dealing with ‘art’ in any useful or comprehensive sense of the word. An anthropologist would gain more out of this than an art historian.

On the relative upside, though, was the final two small rooms that displayed dissident artwork by some postcolonial intellectuals. As an Australian, I was surprised and very excited to see the work of important Aboriginal artists like Judy Watson amidst other renowned, and comfortable, figures of Australian art such as Sidney Nolan. However, the intellectuals taken from other cultures seem to be part of the nationalist elites that completed the classic narrative of journeying to colonial homeland and returning to homeland to be in touch with the people, etc, etc. Some of the artists were truly revolutionary in terms of a European (and arguably postcolonial) art narrative but these intellectuals’ version of dissidence is the type that still sits well with the status quo.

So really, there was nothing about this exhibition that warranted the tagline ‘Facing Britain’s colonial past’ nor the inclusion of ‘Artist’ in the headline. ‘The World Fair: 2016’ would have been far more fitting.

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