The best bit of the Tate Britain’s compelling ‘Artists and Empire‘ exhibition comes right at the end, in the ‘Legacies of Empire’ room. Here, Hew Locke’s clever guerilla art sees him adorn a statue of Bristol’s founding father, Edward Colston, in cheap plastic gold trinkets, a modern equivalent of the tat that imperial traders exchanged for slaves. For, as Locke explains in an accompanying Restoration, Colston and Bristol’s wealth was built on human trafficking.
So while Colston’s bronze effigy in the centre of Bristol is an image of an Enlightenment man of reason, the reality was a ruthless, venal man willing to put personal greed before human well-being. In addition to enjoying the large photographs of Locke’s work, it was also a pleasure to learn that local band-made-good, Massive Attack, have refused to play at Bristol’s Colston Hall under the venue’s name is change.
To say that the best bit of the exhibition comes at the end is not to belittle the rest of the show, which is spread over six rooms. Indeed, it took me almost an hour to leave the first ‘Maps and Marking‘ room. Here we see how British mariners mapped the crown’s growing possessions and celebrated a century of global maritime dominance. A giant ‘Navy League Map of the British Empire’ records how as late as the 1920s Britain still had both the world’s largest navy and a merchant fleet that was bigger than its three nearest rivals combined (Britain – 18 million tonnes; USA – 11m; Japan – 3.6m; France – 3.1m).
Dangling above the maps area series of Asafo military flags, the emblems of native Gold Coast units allied to Britain in the early twentieth century. Designed by Fante artists, they were ultimately banned by a colonial authority that suspected they might be taking the mickey. Certainly a flag of soliders pulling the tail of a lion, beneath the Union Jack, suggests as much.
In ‘Trophies of War’ there is a chance to admire two extraordinary Benin Bronzes, alongside a stunning Indian chess set, cut out of ivory and with knights atop elephants, and bishops astride camels. George Stubb’s magnificent ‘A Cheetah and a Stage with two Indian Attendants’ dominates the far wall. Henry Nelson O’Neill’s propaganda piece, ‘Eastward Ho’ is borrowed from the Museum of London, evoking sympathy and admiration for the red-coats being send to put down the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The ‘Power Dressing’ room has some wonderful portraits of colonial leaders dressing up in the clothes of those they had conquered. And in the penultimate room, we find ‘Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines’, a graphic warning that rebellious subjects would be hanged, but friendly natives would be rewarded.
Overall it’s a compelling exhibition, with some wonderful art and a fair amount of historical insight. Sadly, however, due to markontour’s tardiness, this is not even a ‘last chance to see’ review, because ‘Artists and Empire’ closed on 10 April. But it’s still possible to enjoy the fantastic accompanying Artists and Empire online, replete with some really insightful interviews with artists and curators.