Friday 12 April 2024

Art, Colonialism and Change by Stephanie Williams

If you move fast, you can just catch the fabulous exhibition Entangled Pasts 1768-Now, Art, Colonialism and Change at the Royal Academy in London which ends on 28 April.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA used the banisters of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for his magnificent piece, 'Woman Moving Up'.  Slowly, but steadily, her head a globe of the world, she heaves herself and a suitcase full of heavy baggage, up a splendid marbled staircase. Photo Stephanie Williams

Moving round this exceptional exhibition, I was struck by how much more powerfully a single work of art – rather than any number of words -- can express the pain and contradictions of history. Yet at the same time, offer a fresh perspective on the brutally contrasting and intimately entangled pasts of Africa, India, Britain and the Americas.

Of which we still know so little.

Bust of a Man by Francis Harwood, 1758,
John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
You enter the RA’s central rotunda to be greeted by a handful of fine portraits of Black men. Strong, handsome, elegant – among them works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and John Singleton Copley. Each is accorded all the care and dignity, of any of their white sitters of their time. In the centre stands a black stone bust of a man from 1758 by Francis Harwood. Wonderfully lit, it is reflected up on a series of mirrors to alternate with busts of famous white men beneath the dome. The normal order of the white world has been subverted.

This is a show that makes its points with a light touch. Huw Locke’s Armada imagines the flotillas of craft engaged in the servicing of the plantation economy. At first these look magical. Mesmerising, tiny craft: fishing boats and lighters, miniature Spanish galleons. Look closer. High-rigged slaving ships, their sails, blackened and tattered, like the death ships they were. All are realised from abandoned lengths of string and cloth, plastic, wood and rubber and are suspended like flotsam and jetsam on uneven waves from the ceiling.

Hew Locke RA, Armada, 2017–19, Tate.
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. 

Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe – celebrated in my Canadian past as one of the nation’s great heroes – was painted twenty years after his death after defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759. At his feet sits an idealised First Nation man. In fact he is a Delaware, rather than any of the native tribes to be found in the locale.

Benjamin West, The Death of General James Wolfe (1727-1759) 1779.
National Gallery of Canada

As edition after edition of prints and copies of this painting, conceived as record of a great patriotic victory, were reproduced and circulated around Britain and the world, this image laid the ground for the ideal of the ‘noble savage’ — the admiring onlooker, which recurred in similar works again and again. Here it is challenged by the work of Robert Houle, a Saulteaux Anishinaabe artist, whose Lost Tribes, 1990-1991 can be seen in the next room.

Similarly, Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point series combines print-making and drawing to make the white figures who dominate well-known classical paintings, such as Titian, recede into the background, mere outlines impressed into paper, while traditionally marginalised Black figures rendered in graphite come vividly to life.

Each of these contemporary works force the viewer to assess well-known paintings from the white European canon afresh.

The Royal Academy itself comes under scrutiny for the works of art that were displayed at its Annual Exhibitions. And consider Johann Zoffany’s family portraits. A founder member of the Royal Academy, he had fallen out of favour with his royal patrons and sailed for India in 1783. Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah shows an officer of the East India Company listening to his daughter Jane play the piano, fondly holding hands with his wife. To the right of the picture, his younger daughter, Maria, plays with a cat held by an Indian girl of about the same age. She is too young, surely, to be an ayah, the child’s nurse? Much more likely, she is the offspring of Blair’s Indian mistress.

Johann Zoffany, Colonel Blair and His Family and an Indian Ayah, 1786. Tate 

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) Poems on Various Subjects,
 religious and Moral, 1773.  The British Library
I make many new discoveries.

I had never heard of Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from the Senegambia region of West Africa and enslaved by a family in Boston, who became a poet. Writing as confidently as any white male of the time, she bitterly protested the painting made by Richard Wilson of Niobe, — in Greek mythology the archetypal bereaved mother, who weeps throughout eternity for the loss of her 12 children, murdered by the gods. Niobe was made in 1761, the same year in which Wheatley was captured.

Nor did I know Shahzia Sikander, whose Promiscuous Intimacies 2020, knits together the Mannerist tradition of the west with classical Indian art to highlight the contradictions of a one-sided history.


Shahzia Sikander Promiscuous Intimacies  
Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

And have fun unpicking the rich symbolism of the Singh Twins in Indiennes: The Extended Triangle from the ‘Slaves of Fashion Series, 2018. 


The Singh Twins, Indiennes: The Extended Triangle 
from the 'Slaves of Fashion series, 2018, 
© The Singh Twins 

I have always been struck by the bombastic power – and incongruity -- of British architecture set down, often by Royal Engineers according to pattern books, in every former colony from Jamaica to Hong Kong. In Primitive Matters: Huts Karen McLean projects a series of large European style homes once owned by wealthy merchants and plantation owners in Port of Spain in Trinidad onto seven huts replicating the local vernacular.

Karen McLean, Primitive Matters, Huts 2010


There is much, more more to see.  Sit for a moment in front of Isaac Julien's film, Lessons of the Hour, about the abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who questioned, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?'  Consider Edwin Long's The Babylonian Marriage Market of 1875 shown not far from El Antsui's poignant Akua's Surviving Children 1996.   

University of London, Egham. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

The counterpoint between past and present is a potent device indeed.  What a waste it is this show is not on for longer.


Entangled Pasts, 1768 - NOW 

Art, Colonialism and Change is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 

until 28 April 2024

Photo Bill Knight

Stephanie Williams is a Canadian writer based in London and delighted to be writing for the History Girls, a blog she has often investigated when doing historical research.  Author of BBC Book of the Week, Olga's Story, the life of her Russian Grandmother, her most recent book, Running the Showwas based on an 1879 questionnaire which revealed the extraordinary characters who were Queen Victoria’s colonial governors. She is now at work looking into the back-offices of the East India Company in London to find out  exactly what went on there. See more at


Lesley Downer said...

Fantastic piece! Welcome to the group! I shall be rushing to see the exhibition.

Stephanie Williams said...

Thanks Lesley!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Hello Stephanie,

Welcome to the HGs. Alas, I won't be in London to see the exhibition but you have given us a wonderful tour of it. Thank you.
Carol D

Stephanie Williams said...

Thanks, Carol

Sue Purkiss said...

As you say, what a shame the exhibition isn't on for longer! I don't think I'll be able to make it, so I really appreciate this guided tour. Welcome to the group!