The exhibition, ‘Artist and Empire’, which ended last week, was according to its curators the ‘first UK exhibition to consider the art of Britain’s historical empire.’ By all accounts the exhibition has been a success – so what’s not to like. Rather than follow a straight chronological line in their curation, the exhibitors have structured the exhibition thematically, presenting the art not in the context of time but in relation to particular narratives and dynamics. Spread over 6 rooms, the exhibition covers Britain’s two empires, each room representing a curatorial theme; ‘Mapping and Marking’ which explores the cartographic output of empire; ‘Trophies of Empire’, which reflects on the imperial penchant, production and acquisition of curios, ‘Imperial Heroics’, Power Dressing, ‘Face to Face’, Out of Empire, and Legacies of Empire’. By and large this works well, and left your reviewer with a sense of the broad expanse of work that empire produced. Much of it is bombastic of course, self-aggrandising art for celebrating violent conquest. Where this exhibition truly came to life was in the section called ‘Face to Face’ – a section where one of the central aggressions of empire, particularly the European empires of the modern age is poignantly underscored, not negated. But it is also in this section that we encounter the redeeming remnant of empire, a remnant that would nonetheless have been possible without the violence of empire – human encounter; the art here simply underscores the tragedy of countless human encounters squandered; most poignant are the works of Charles Frederick Goldie and his portraits of high ranking Maori aristocrats; there and in other sections, the portraits of various subjugated princes, including those of Maharajah Duleep Singh, deposed of land but allowed his title, and the tragic Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, underscore how much imperial art represented a capturing of its subject in more than a metaphorical sense; striking as well are the examples of art produced in conquered territories, including a sculpture by an Ibibio artist of writer and traveller, Mary Kingsley, and various statues by Yoruba artists of members of the Royal family; works which go to show how much a sense of being part of the empire, for better or worse occupied the cultural space of every land that became part of it.
Despite the fineness of this work, and much else in this exhibition, the actual brutal business of empire is a subtext; too often we come close to celebrating the glory of empire, with vast paintings that mask even episodes of defeat as part of the inexorable march to greatness. What is missing from this exhibition is art that portrays the human cost of empire, particularly to the subjugated people’s; certainly what does not come across is the racialised nature of Britain’s imperial structure, and slavery, which played such a large role is notably absent from this exhibition; granted this was not a sociological exhibition, but the absence is striking. We get a hint of an interrogation of imperial legacy in the last two rooms and sections of the exhibition ‘Out of Empire’ and ‘Legacies of Empire’, but it is too little, and the juxtaposition too subtle. This exhibition could have been braver about interrogating the legacy and mendacity of British imperial art.