Bernardine Evaristo on the role of the artist
By Bernardine Evaristo
Published on 29 January 2024
The award-winning novelist examines why contemporary artists of all disciplines are addressing imperial history in new ways.
We creatives emerge into the world of the arts as curious beings – wide-eyed, ambitious, hopeful, hopefully talented, wondering if there is a place for us and how we can make a contribution. We want to make our mark, we want to show our points of view, we want to do something different. Global majority writers, theatre-makers, visual artists, film-makers, performers and indeed all those in the artistic spheres have often offered new takes on the British Empire and the slave trade, which, let’s be honest, were hugely profitable and influential international businesses that underpinned the British economy for centuries.
However, the self-aggrandising standpoint of the conqueror long dominated the ways in which this was relayed in the arts: who was subject, who was subordinate; who was visible, who was invisible; who was presented with dignity and who was stereotyped and even caricatured. We remember our national past through the timelines and interpretations selected for it, and for centuries, the chroniclers of Britain were primarily male, originally monastic, and overwhelmingly from the ruling strata of the scholarly and upper classes. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that specialist academic fields, such as women’s or Black history, began to emerge that offered a corrective to this limited approach to recording history.
Although imperial nostalgia still prevails in some quarters, the challenges to its one-sided representations are becoming increasingly persuasive. The Black Lives Matter moments of public protest a few years ago prompted institutional self-reflection and opened doors for new artists, but several veteran artists have been interrogating British history from unexplored angles for a long time. Artists such as Isaac Julien RA, whose video installations are wide-ranging, beautiful, intellectual, politically critical, yet also quite opaque and dreamy. They include Lessons of the Hour, an interrogation, interpretation and vivification of the life of Frederick Douglass, the renowned, once enslaved, African American abolitionist, writer and orator, who lived in Edinburgh for a year.
Or Lubaina Himid RA, whose extraordinary installation, Naming the Money (2004), comprises 100 plywood life-sized cut-outs of enslaved Africans from 18th-century Europe, among whom the audience can walk. The history of slavery is appalling but Himid’s individualised fictional figures are powerful, flamboyant, laden with symbolism, colourful, alive. In Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, Hew Locke RA staged an installation The Procession (2022) that was a carnivalesque meditation on money and power, slavery and empire, history and culture, drawing on motifs from all over the world. It was a celebratory but macabre performance, static yet so animated, distilling hundreds of years of history through strange human figures, their accoutrements, animals, objects. The Procession abstracted and re-represented layers upon layers of troubled history, yet this spectacular installation created a sense of wonder, even euphoria.
In my own work I often engage with Britain’s history. In my anachronistic verse novel The Emperor’s Babe (2001), I imagined a young Black woman living in Roman London 1800 years ago. Inspired by the knowledge that a legion of African Moors had been stationed at Hadrian’s Wall with the Roman army at that time, I wanted to challenge the belief that Britain’s foundations were entirely mono-racial, through fiction that imagined my Black protagonist of Nubian parentage, bringing her alive into the 21st century. The British Empire was modelled on the Roman Empire, and in this novel connections were made. In my satirical novel Blonde Roots (2009), I created an alternate universe where I inverted the transatlantic slave trade, with Africans enslaving Europeans. I wanted to explore this 400-year history from a fresh perspective, to see what could be revealed. As a writer of African heritage, like many others in the arts, I am not interested in blindly accepting a British history that is presented as misleadingly beneficent when it is as flawed as that of any other nation: imperfect people, imperfect societies, imperfect governments, imperfect histories.
My project as a writer has always been to get underneath the skin of society from an African diasporic perspective, and to concoct compelling narratives and characters that explore the moral complexity inherent in what it means to be human, what it means to be a nation – past, present, future, imagined.
Some argue that all art is political, in that it reflects an artist’s world view that’s influenced by political and social factors, power structures and historical contexts. Others argue that the two should be kept separate, that art should be devoid of politics. Yet politics is in the very air we breathe and in the art we produce and experience. Think Shakespeare. Think Picasso. Think Basquiat. Think Emin. Art does not exist suspended in a universe of nothingness, but within the swirling, changing, charging political energies that determine who creates it and what they produce; whether it is exhibited publicly, and how; how it is critiqued and by whom; how it is sold, and for how much – or if it is not sold at all; and whether it is deemed worthy of entering the canons of art history.
New cultures, new approaches and new practices are essential to regenerating every art form. Without them they risk suffering from stagnation, repetition, complacency – a kind of slow suicide. Visual artists have incredible freedom in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes their art form in an ever-expanding, ever-revolving spiral out towards the universe. And global majority artists are at the forefront of finding fascinating and original ways to investigate British history, and dismantling some of its enduring foundational myths. A democracy that can face its own past with a balanced but critical gaze, instead of extolling its virtues without critique, is a mature and admirable one.
Bernardine Evaristo is a writer. She is the President of the Royal Society of Literature and her novel Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize in 2019.
Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change takes place in the Main Galleries, Burlington House, 3 February – 28 April 2024.
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