On Saturday I had a bit of time to spare so I popped into Tate Britain to check out their latest exhibition, Artist and Empire. The exhibition encompasses art from the past five hundred years or so, concerned with the British Empire. It includes works by diverse artists, both oppressors and oppressed, conquerors and the conquered, from different perspectives.
The exhibition acknowledges that the issue of ’empire’ is a difficult one to explore and come to terms with these days. However, remnants of the British Empire are all around us, and the exhibition attempts to face these head on in order to explore the issues they raise. I really like the way exhibitions at Tate Britain tend to mix old and new works and all different kinds of art, and this one is no exception.
The exhibition is divided into themes, with one room containing maps, one about heroics, one focused on costume and portraiture, and so on. Maps in particular were often used to denote conquest, while naming places implied ownership over that place. Portraits were often used as symbols of power, and the clothes worn by the sitter were often suggestive: Western dress worn by Indian royalty and Native American dress worn by the British, for example, implied a receptivity to other cultures. Having said that, the power balance was hardly equal: many works painted (pun intended) the British as morally correct, honourable conquerors. One section of the exhibition looked at trophies: collections of plants, animals and birds, drawings and paintings of them, and artefacts created by humans.
The latter part of the exhibition looks at the work of modern artists examining the legacy of empire in often-provocative ways. The exhibition is a thought-provoking one: for me, it wasn’t so much about viewing and enjoying art for its own sake, but using it as a lens through which to view beliefs and attitudes concerning empire.