Start here: Entangled Pasts, 1768–now
Published on 29 January 2024
Past and present collide in our powerful exhibition in the Main Galleries this spring.
Art, colonialism and change
Art can change the way we see the world and understand each other, and it can act as a powerful lens through which complex situations can be viewed and nuanced understandings of them can emerge.
Conceived in 2021 in response to the urgent public debates about the relationship between artistic representation and imperial histories, Entangled Pasts, 1768–now reflects on the power of art to influence ideas. It places contemporary and historical works side by side to create thematic and visual connections across time. This acts as a starting point for ongoing conversations about how art shapes narratives of empire, colonialism, enslavement, resistance, abolition and indenture.
An exhibition on this vast and complex subject is necessarily a partial, fragmentary view. Moments of history are refracted through the eyes of artists, especially contemporary British artists of the African, Caribbean and South Asian diasporas.
It will seem like a journey through time... a kind of pageant of great paintings, difficult paintings, great installations, but it will be like walking through a great city.
Lubaina Himid RA
Sites of power
The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 at the height of Britain’s Atlantic trade in enslaved African people. British colonial expansion was on the rise.
The RA was a place for the leading artists of the day. These artists created work that represented current events and the people involved, and would help shape public taste and opinion through the art they made.
Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe depicts the Battle of Quebec on a spectacular scale. The work features a First Nations (Delaware) figure, kneeling on the left side of the canvas – is at once an idealised and exoticised representation of Indigenous people that helped shape viewer’s ideas about Indigenous peoples in North America, and a record of the active participation of Indigenous peoples in 18th-century geopolitics
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Beauty and difference
Art and mass media have the power to shape aesthetic norms. Prints, poetry, sculpture and photography can influence what people consider to be beautiful.
In this exhibition, aestheticised scenes of colonial life such as Agostino Brunias’s View of the River Roseau, Dominica are hung alongside contemporary works which challenge these idealised scenes and help to restore non-Western perspectives.
Where Johann Zoffany presents fashionable white colonial families such as that of Colonel Blair, an East India Company Officer, Mohini Chandra uses photocollage to explore her own family’s “diasporic experience of in-between-ness".
Where Thomas Stothard uses a design of a nude Black woman rising from the sea to embellish a pro-slavery text, Margaret Burroughs riffs on the same image in her linocut Black Venus to transform the sexualisation of Black women into a hopeful image of resistance.
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In the latter part of the exhibition we explore the theme Crossing Waters, a reference to the Middle Passage – the forced journey of enslaved African people across the Atlantic Ocean in European slave ships – and evocative of the treacherous journeys migrants make today to seek refuge on safer shores.
You’ll see vast paintings by Ellen Gallagher and Frank Bowling, whose works, in different ways, engage the power of abstraction and materiality to evoke trauma and loss. Both artists have drawn inspiration from the work of J.M.W. Turner, whose 1850s maritime pictures record Britain’s commercial activities at sea, including the slave trade and whaling.
You will also encounter John Akomfrah’s three-channel film Vertigo Sea, which weaves together histories of migration and enslavement with ecological concerns.
Today we’re always sailing alongside the ghosts of the past.
Hew Locke RA
Where to from here?
You will leave the exhibition by passing between two sculptures by contemporary artists.
Yinka Shonibare’s Justice for All re-imagines the statue of Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey. RA Schools graduate Olu Ogunnaike’s I’d Rather Stand recreates the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in a custom-made material formed from re-used hardwood. Both artworks pose topical questions about the power of artworks in public spaces.
Inevitably, an exhibition such as this can only ever represent a tiny proportion of the artists and artworks engaged in its themes. But we hope that this is part of an important, ongoing conversation for the people connected to the Royal Academy as an institution, just one milestone on the long road towards necessary change as we collectively reflect on our entangled pasts.
Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change
This spring, we bring together over 100 major contemporary and historic works as part of a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism – and how it may help set a course for the future.
Past and present collide in one powerful exhibition.