A Tangled Mess

Some thoughts on art I’ve seen this week

Dr Victoria Powell

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Frank Bowling, Middle Passage (1970). © Frank Bowling (Copyright Visual Arts-CARCC, 2023) Photo: NGC.

This week I went to see the new show at the Royal Academy in London. It’s called Entangled Pasts: 1768-now: Art, Colonialism and Change, and it looks at the relationship between Britain’s imperial histories and the visual arts, and how art shapes narratives of empire, slavery and resistance. The explicit aim of the show, the curators say, is to explore how the effects of colonialism have permeated this British art establishment, whilst presenting the actual experiences of black and brown people over the past 250 years.

Almost every single art critic reviewing this show has described it as groundbreaking, extraordinary, or radical. I didn’t think it was any of those things. In fact the subject matter was so tamed and contained, that it made me a little bit annoyed. I kept waiting to see the realities of the violence and cruelty of our colonial history, but it never came. Occasionally it was hinted at. One art critic who gave the exhibition a 5-star review described the curatorial approach as shocking and enlightening, praising ‘the ideas embodied through art itself rather than via the deadening wall texts that instruct us round similar shows.’

I couldn’t disagree more. There was nothing shocking about this show — although it could have been if more explanation from the curators had been provided. It did, however, make me think about the lack of knowledge we have as a nation about the history of our empire and its pernicious presence in people’s lives today. British imperial history is not taught coherently and comprehensively in schools, but it should be. Given this gaping hole in our education on such a fundamentally important subject, it’s incumbent on our museums and galleries to fill in the blanks. This show had the potential to be an educational eye-opener, but instead it was a meandering, surface-level mess.

The truth is that our imperial history was violent, cruel and inhumane. The elites who ran the empire operated with the arrogance of power, exploiting landscapes and repressing people everywhere they went, motivated by money and greed. None of this was made explicit in this exhibition and you can’t possibly understand the huge gulf between image and reality if you’re not given the context and you’ve never learnt about it.

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Dr Victoria Powell

I write about art, history, politics & culture, without the confusing art speak. Crazy about dogs. Victorian historian. 19th-century gentleman in a former life.