Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
John Singleton Copley RA, Watson and the Shark, 1778 Oil on canvas, 183.5 x 229.6 cm Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
3rd February – 28th April, 2024
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
London W1J 0BD

The Royal Academy of Arts presents Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change, an ambitious exhibition bringing together over 100 major contemporary and historic artworks as part of a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives around empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism. Spanning over 250 years, from the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 to the present and informed by the RA’s ongoing research into its links with colonialism, the exhibition engages over 50 artists connected to the institution to explore the relationship between art and our understanding of the past.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
‘A Fellah of Kinneh’, 1869, oil on canvas,
Thomas Stuart Smith (The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum)

An exceptional variety of art has been brought together including important international and UK loans as well as works from the RA’s collection and archive, ranging from large-scale painting, sculpture, immersive installation and film to intimate works on paper and poetry, presenting new contexts in which these pieces can be interpreted and understood. Artworks by leading contemporary artists including Frank Bowling RA, Sonia Boyce RA, Lubaina Himid RA, Isaac Julien RA, Hew Locke RA, Yinka Shonibare RA and Kara Walker Hon RA are shown in dialogue with works by artists from the past, including Joshua Reynolds PRA, Thomas Gainsborough RA, John Singleton Copley RA and J.M.W. Turner RA – tracing connections across time and place to reflect on how art is entangled with colonial histories and revealing the international underpinnings of ‘British’ art.

The exhibition was programmed in 2021 in response to the urgent public debates about the relationship between artistic representation and imperial histories. These debates were prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
Kara Walker Hon RA, no world, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010
Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite and drypoint on paper, 68.6 x 99.1 cm
British Museum, London
© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers

Additionally, the RA’s Summer Exhibition 2021, coordinated by Yinka Shonibare with the theme ‘Reclaiming Magic’, aimed to “transcend the Western canon which formed the foundations of the Royal Academy”. Shonibare’s strong curatorial statement inspired the RA to organise an exhibition that looks outwards, creating links with people and places around the globe, with a strong emphasis on British artists of the African, Caribbean and Indian diasporas, for whom an exploration of colonialism and its legacies has been fundamental.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change is presented across the RA’s Main Galleries, organised into three thematic sections that intertwine narratives across time. Sites of Power examines absence and presence in Grand Manner portraiture and history painting, reflecting on the decades surrounding the foundation of the RA, which saw both the height of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the emergence of the movement for abolition, as well as new networks of artistic patronage associated with the East India Company.

Beauty and Difference traces the proliferation of aesthetic norms via drawings, prints, poetry, sculpture and photography in works that embody the moral contradictions of the Victorian age, during which abolition became a fashionable theme for artists while Britain continued aggressive colonial expansion. Crossing Waters takes an international perspective on the widespread legacies of the Middle Passage, including its far-reaching ecological consequences, through immersive spaces that offer time to reflect on our common history, its ramifications, and parallel issues today.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber,c. 1770
Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 63.8 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston
Photo © Hickey-Robertson, Houston

Highlights include historic portraits such as Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, c.1770 (The Menil Collection, Houston) and Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho, 1768 (The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which is shown alongside contemporary portraiture including Kerry James Marshall Hon RA’s Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776, 2007 (Paul & De Gray) and Sonia Boyce’s Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great, 1986 (Arts Council Collection, London). Genre painting and sculpture including Johan Zoffany RA’s The Family of Sir William Young, 1767- 69 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man, 1758 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) convey the construction and upholding of racial hierarchies, while John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, 1778 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), an allegory of transatlantic politics, is amongst work that demonstrates that empire was a crucial subject for artists and viewers. This contemporary history painting caused a sensation when a version of it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 and has not been shown outside Boston since 1993.

Further highlights include Hew Locke’s major installation Armada, 2017-2019 (Tate, London), on display in London for the first time, consisting of a giant flotilla of model boats recalling different periods and places; and Isaac Julien’s film installation Lessons of the Hour, 2019 (courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London), a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass, an African American writer, orator, abolitionist and a freed slave, including excerpts of his most arresting speeches.

John Singleton Copley RA, Watson and the Shark, 1778
Oil on canvas, 183.5 x 229.6 cm
Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston
Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Past works of Empire in India are in conversation with works by contemporary artists of South Asian heritage including Shahzia Sikander, Mohini Chandra and the Singh Twins. The ocean as a site of mourning and collective memory is evoked through significant painting and sculpture including Frank Bowling’s Middle Passage, 1970 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), Ellen Gallagher Hon RA’s Whale Falls, 2017 (The Ekard Collection) and El Anatsui Hon RA’s Akua’s Surviving Children, 1996 (courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London), as well as John Akomfrah RA’s panoramic, three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea, 2015 (Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery).

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change
‘The Pipe of Freedom’, 1869, oil on canvas, Thomas Stuart Smith (The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum)

The exhibition culminates with sculptures on a human scale, including I’d Rather Stand, 2022, a work by recent RA Schools graduate Olu Ogunnaike and Lubaina Himid’s Naming the Money, 2004 (International Slavery Museum, Liverpool), an expansive installation of life-size painted cut-out figures and an ode to human resilience, community and creativity. A major new sculpture by Tavares Strachan entitled The First Supper, 2021-23 (courtesy the artist and Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland) will be on view in the RA’s Annenberg courtyard.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change explores how deeply the effects of colonialism have permeated the RA and its history, while also looking forward, inviting viewers to consider how conversations around these legacies might unfold in the future. The exhibition, together with the catalogue, talks, events and online content, is a forum for acknowledgment, reflection and debate, taking the next step towards necessary change.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Art, Colonialism and Change opens on the 3rd of February until the 28th of April, 2024 at Royal Academy of Arts

©2024 The Royal Academy of Arts