Artist and Empire at Tate Britain is an exhibition of epic scope and ambition. Straddling Asia, Africa, America and Australasia as well as hearkening back to the Old World through to the present day, it is faced with the daunting task of covering 400 years of colonialism and post colonialism, and the effect on, and manifestation in, art in its multifarious forms, in an intelligent, engaging and unbiased way. It’s a big ask for just one, relatively unassuming, exhibition, and the result is a rich and often incongruous tapestry of different mediums, genres and subjects that accrete to a global portrait.
This incongruity which seems to be implicit within the whole notion of colonialism is apparent almost immediately. In the first room we encounter brightly coloured flags made by Fante artists along the Gold Coast between 1900 to 1940, the Union Jack is superimposed on a variety of traditional designs in a joyfully clashing manner – these were made for local militia who supported British protectoracy in the area. Underneath these banners of ostensible harmony is a watercolour by Wenceslas Hollar of The Settlement at Whitby; at first appearing to depict a typical English landscape, it is only from reading the wall panel that I realise this is in fact a painting of Tangiers in Algeria when it was first settled by the English, the landscape and palette of that country superimposed on it, effacing the colonised land’s indigenous scenery and culture.
Did empire contribute to the development of certain genres in art? Amadeo John Engel Tezil’s watercolour of a beetle, made for the Empire Marketing Board, is a vibrant exponent of the new interest in scientific drawings; an amateur anthropology photos album of “ethnographies” reveals members of different Indian castes looking deeply uncomfortable. New genres could be conflated with the appropriation of indigenous visual languages by the colonialists: proclamation boards were hung on trees to be seen by Aborigines. One such was Governor Aruthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines (1829-30) is stylistically based on Aboriginal wood carvings, creating a weird piece ofpastiche-propaganda: scenes showing blacks and whites in the same dress arm in arm; women holding babies of the opposite colour; the races killing each other; and then both races being hanged by law enforcements, all intended to proclaim a message of fairness between the indigenous and settler populations.
It is important to note that this adoption of artistic styles was not completely one-way traffic – as we move into the 19th and 20th centuries, a fusion of eastern and western aesthetics blossoms. The Tanjore Durbar, near Madras, is an exquisite watercolour/gouache of a palatial Indian interior; the interweaving of European perspective on the floor tiles, and flat decorative nature of the figures and ceiling, produces an almost futuristic effect. Samuel Fyzee Rahamin’s Raagni Todi, Goddess Tune (1913) is painted in the traditional two-dimensional Rajpuat style, but the European influence of his training at the Royal Academy Schools in London (under John Singer Sargeant) is discernible in the naturalistic trees.
The exhibition also represents the history of different cultures through individuals, and there are some wonderful portraits here, from the ridiculous – Thomas Rowlandson’s sharply satirical cartoons Sir Joseph Banks about to eat an Alligator (of a British naturalistic) and Rachel Pringle of Barbados (a slave turned slave-owner) – to the sublime, such as Rudolf Swoboda’s trio of small intelligently painted portraits of Indian craftsmen, and Charles Frederick Goldie’s outstanding portraits of Harata Rewiri Tarapata: A Maori Cheiftaness and Te aho-O-to-Rangi Wharepu, which are astonishingly lifelike, from the heavily lined skin to the expressionistic eyes. He called these “ethnographs” – employing an academic style – to portray survivors of the conflict with white government between 1845-72. Every hair on the woman’s head has been exactly realised as has the fringing on their flax cloaks, and their jade pendants. With such a level of accuracy given to their faces as well as their clothing, these paintings unintentionally imbue their subjects with character, depicting the conflict between the strength and encroaching of old age on a terrorised but proud culture.
Does this exhibition teach us anything new about British imperialism? I think not, but what it does do is show how visual representation opened up an effective path for the gaze travel both ways, between colonist and colonised. In the last room, new generations from colonised cultures start to bite back – see Avinash Chandra’s Hills of Gold and Judy Watsons’s Our hair/bones/skin in your collections. It offers the subjugated a chance to whisper to us in 2016, down the centuries, “Don’t forget”.