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London’s Royal Academy Looks Critically at Its Past | Featuring Betye Saar

It is one thing for a museum to commission a survey examining the colonial activity of its past, as many institutions in the UK are doing following the Black Lives Matter movement and, in the UK specifically, the 2020 toppling of the Colston statue. It is another to prompt an open dialogue on how to move forward as a society. This is the Royal Academy’s goal in the exhibition Entangled Pasts 1768–Now: Art, Colonialism and Change, which marries work from its 250-year history with contemporary responses by 50 RA-affiliated artists. Its curation is at once academically rigorous, profound, and emotionally moving.

Though framed by the RA’s history, which gives heft and solid evidential footing to its commentary on colonialism, it is arranged ahistorically. This reiterates the title’s reference to interconnectedness across time and geography. It suggests that the past is so “entangled” that it defies singular, definitive interpretations; instead it is colored with innumerable shades of nuance. Reflecting this is the remarkable decision to reprint in the show’s pamphlet not wall texts, as is common for London exhibitions, but a collection of poetry from the past and present, and campaign texts for the abolition of slavery from the late 18th- and 19th-century.

The approach easily could have resulted in an undisciplined scattergun of ideas, yet the curators juxtapose and organize visual examples with laser focus by sectioning the display into clear themes and sub-themes. Additionally, each room’s introductory caption follows a consistent format, starting with one aspect of the RA’s history, then contextualizing it within wider themes such as “Tradition and Appropriation” or “Conflict and Ambition,” and moving forward to contemporary considerations suggested by the curators. Captions for the individual works similarly do not impose a prescribed interpretation, instead offering just historical background, treating the viewer as intelligent and capable of exploring the art’s wider potential implications. This strategy crucially avoids layering the survey with hyperbolic emotion; the horrors of colonialism are evident throughout and speak for themselves.

In tandem with sparking conversations,  the survey seeks to document both the colonialist links of RA members and Black persons overlooked by history. For the former, captions detail these links, as in the 1758 portrait of the daughters of Isaac Royall Jr., who himself owned a sugar plantation in Antigua and enslaved people in colonial Massachusetts, by John Singleton Copley, who we are told was the only known Academician to own enslaved people.

For the latter, we’re privy to primary records from the RA’s collections, such as a “cash book” from 1857–81, which details Jamaican-born Fanny Eaton’s work as a life model in its painting school. Most powerful is a series of portraits of Black sitters. The caption contextualizes the Royal Academicians’ desire to establish Britain as a leading artistic center amid the establishment of British rule in India and Britain’s Atlantic trade in enslaved African people. Many of these sitters were present in Georgian Britain due to the vast transport networks facilitating the plantation economy, and the RA continues research into their unrecorded identities. 

At the room’s center is a classicized bust of an unknown Black man (1758) by Francis Harwood. The caption explains how classicism perpetuated the Western canon, but allows the viewer to consider who this man was and what kind of life he led. Was he merely a means for the artist to present British classicist ideals, or did the artist believe he was elevating his subject? How was the audience at the time meant to view the image—as an aggrandizing portrait of a real person or mere “exotic” room decoration? Such questions are raised throughout the show, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions.

The academic rigor of the captions is counterbalanced by the poignant responses by contemporary artists and some astonishingly inspired curating. In “Constructing Whiteness,” white walls ingeniously link to the text conceptually, explaining the extent to which the British cotton economy relied on the labor of enslaved people in the Southern United States. Nearby is LA-based artist Betye Saar’s “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break” (1998), an iron shackled to an ironing board bearing an 18th-century diagram of the British slave ship Brookes, behind which is a cotton sheet bearing the Ku Klux Klan symbol. 

Immediately following is a cavernous, deep blue room in which the theme of the ocean connects to the sublime in art through the idea of enforced geographical displacement. It is a gut-wrenchingly cathartic transition that comprises both current Academician Frank Bowling’s Middle Passage (1970), an abstract expressionist storm of flaming yellows and reds referencing the notorious slave ship journey, and Ellen Gallagher’s Stablising Spheres (2014), which imagines an underwater realm populated by pregnant African women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage who gave birth to children who could breathe underwater. 

The urgency of examining colonialist history and the tendrils of its influence that continue to underpin British society is most salient in the final room, which asks “Where to from here?” The Colston statue freshly in mind, recent RA school graduate Olu Ogunnaike takes Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, a continuing symbol of public art and statuary as a platform for political statement, and recreates it in waste faux-hardwood, referencing both luxury furniture exported globally and the wooden ships by which enslaved people were transported. There can be no overstating the importance of this show in addressing colonialism, as well as art’s role in documenting and encouraging the public to actively explore these issues and their own place in society. It sets an example for how we can not only look to the past to evaluate it, but, crucially, how it can inspire a collective self-reflection and change for the future.

Entangled Pasts 1768–Now: Art, Colonialism and Change continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through April 28. The exhibition was curated by Dorothy Price, Cora Gilroy-Ware, and Esther Chadwick.