What does it mean to consider empire at the centre, not the peripheries, of British art and culture today? Motivated by this provocation, the Stuart Hall Foundation joined colleagues and collaborators for a workshop at the Paul Mellon Centre, titled ‘British Art in the Age of Empire 2.0’.
As Professor Tim Barringer (Yale University), noted in his introduction, empire’s place in British art history is no longer the topic of clandestine academic chats around the office coffee machine. Following the Tate’s 2001 conference and subsequent publication, Art and the British Empire (edited by Barringer, Geoff Quilley and Douglas Fordham, 2007), this once-marginal topic has taken centre stage in the work of numerous scholars, curators, artists and activists. Yet this collective inquiry is not only an incipient project—an ‘art history in the making’, the organisers note—but is also confronted with new urgencies and complexities in the wake of Brexit and attendant debates on citizenship, national identity and Britain’s future role in global politics.
Participants drew on multiple practices, disciplines and histories to address the day’s theme. Each spoke on one object, image or exhibition for five minutes, generating plenty of discussion. Catherine Hall, SHF Trustee and a pre-eminent historian of British slavery, began by speaking to the nuanced perspective on daily life in colonised Jamaica, as seen through the watercolours of little-known artist William Berryman. Fiona Kearney, Director of The Glucksman, foregrounded the present-day resonances of these colonial histories in Northern Ireland. Fiona discussed artist Willie Doherty’s 1994 photograph Border Incident, placed at the centre of The Glucksman’s exhibition ‘OUTPOSTS: Global borders and national boundaries’ (1 Dec 2017-11 Mar 2018). As the show’s opening coincided with the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary, Doherty’s image originally struck a commemorative note, remembering past conflicts from the vantage of today’s peaceful and open borders. Yet, as Fiona described, Brexit has reignited the image’s latent tensions: border struggles and food shortages are again real possibilities; yet at the same time, a more multi-faceted and global Irish identity emerges as applications for Irish passports reach record high.
Throughout the day, sessions demonstrated a recurring interest in objects. Speakers contested empire’s dominant narratives by reading material histories against the grain, and stressed the transformative potential of embodied encounters with tangible things. Several sessions focused these themes through artworks that engage the politics of public monuments. Discussion also circled around the roles and responsibilities of cultural institutions—how can they convey the complex and entangled histories of collections that record imperial histories? How can they unearth voices and stories that are silenced in these collections, and surface the ongoing resonances of Britain’s imperial past without trading in nostalgia?
Our conversation migrated back to the complexities of national identity with artist Marlene Smith’s discussion of a photograph entitled After the Bomb at the Duke of York Pub, taken in 1973 by Bill Pak. The image features a young black man in a soldier’s uniform, holding an automatic rifle. The scene is peaceful, yet the title locates it amidst the violence of Ireland’s Troubles. We are compelled to ask: what does a ‘British’ soldier look like? What structures and relations of power are at play in the expansion and defence of national borders? In a moment where citizenship is temporary—as starkly evinced by the recent controversy over Shamima Begum—these questions are vital. There is much more to say and ask, yet we can conclude as did Marlene, with the power of images and objects to reactivate Britain’s difficult histories in public conversation.
Sarah Turner (Deputy Director for Research, Paul Mellon Centre)
Tim Barringer (Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art, Yale University)
Hammad Nasar (Stuart Hall Foundation Executive Director, Paul Mellon Centre Senior Research Fellow)
Watercolour drawing of the Lucky Valley Estate, Clarendon, Jamaica, William Berryman, 1808.
Catherine Hall (Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History, University College London)
Willie Doherty, Border Incident, 1994 in ‘OUTPOSTS: Global borders and national boundaries’, The Glucksman, 1 Dec 2017–11 Mar 2018
Fiona Kearney (Director, The Glucksman, University College Cork)
Keith Piper, The Trophies of Empire, 1985
Anjali Dalal-Clayton (PMC Postdoctoral Research Fellow & University of the Arts London)
Vong Phaophanit, Neon Rice Field, 1993 (shortlisted for the Turner Prize)
Pamela Nguyen Corey (Lecturer in South East Asian Art, SOAS)
Francis Newton Souza, Crucifixion, 1959 in ‘All Too Human’, Tate Britain, 28 Feb–27 Aug 2018
David Dibosa (Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts, London)
Studio MASH, A Long Shadow Over London in Historic England’s ‘Immortalised: A Design Competition
Harr-Joht Kaur Takhar (Historic England)
Haitian coin with portrait of Henri Christophe, c. 1820
Esther Chadwick (Lecturer in Early Modern Art History, Courtauld Institute of Art)
Commonwealth Institute: A Guide Describing the Work of the Institute and the Exhibitions in the Galleries, London: Commonwealth Institute, c. 1966
Claire Wintle (Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies and Design History, University of Brighton)
Bill Pak, After the Bomb at the Duke of York Pub, 1973
Marlene Smith (Associate Artist, Modern Art Oxford Associate, Making Histories Visible & Phd Candidate IBAR, University of Central Lancashire)
Hew Locke, Colston, from the Restoration series, 2006
Dorothy Price (Reader in History of Art, University of Bristol)
Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984
Laura Castagnini (Assistant Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art, Tate Britain)
Sutapa Biswas, Magnesium Bird, 2004
Sutapa Biswas (Artist & Reader, Manchester School of Art, MMU)
Tim Barringer, ‘West: The black Atlantic and the American Sublime’
The Paul Mellon lectures: Global landscape in the age of Empire