Colonial Context:
Art in Conversation

In 2021, the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, began investigating its own connections to the colonial atrocities of the British Empire. The first step involved researching the early links between the institution and slavery between 1768 and 1850. The study revealed an interlocking web of varying connections between members of the RA and the lives of more than 15 million people trafficked during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The RA’s first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was patronised by wealthy slave owners; the American painter John Singleton Copley RA (1738-1815) owned enslaved people and J. M. W Turner invested in Jamaican farming businesses that profited from slave labour. Such long overdue acknowledgement came in the wake of the conversations about racism and legacies of colonialism sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests following Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Cultural institutions all over the UK – from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool to The National Gallery in London – are finally beginning to inspect these deeply embedded histories and their impact today.

The RA addresses these legacies in its newest exhibition, Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change. The show places contemporary works in conversation with historic ones, bringing to light narratives surrounding empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism. Over 100 pieces are on display, spanning over 250 years – tracing all the way back from the RA’s foundation to the present. Works from Royal Academicians Isaac Julien, Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce and Yinka Shonibare speak to paintings from Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner. The show is organised into three thematic sections. The first, Sites of Power, looks at 18th century Grand Manner paintings in light of Britain’s heightened colonial activity. The second section, Beauty and Difference, traces the aesthetic norms popularised through drawings, prints, poetry, sculpture and photography. Lastly, Crossing Waters, considers the widespread legacies of the Middle Passage, such as its far-reaching ecological consequences.

In her review for The Guardian, art critic Laura Cumming describes the first room of the show as: “a whole gallery of Black subjects: this has never happened at the Royal Academy before.” One of these subjects was the abolitionist, composer and writer Charles Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-1780) in a 1768 portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). We see Sancho dressed in gleaming metal and rich fabric. These are symbols of the independent man he had fought to become after arriving in England to work as a slave at just two years old. Elsewhere, Kerry James Marshall RA (b. 1955) addresses the lack of Black artists that we know from this time period with Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776 (2007). Marshall’s work focuses on someone largely forgotten by historical records except for the frontispiece he created for the African American poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) and her celebratory poem dedicated “To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works.” Her words are passionate praise from one artist to another, as she writes: “And may the charms of each seraphic theme / Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!” Centuries later, Marshall imagines a man who has not gotten the “immortal fame” many of the historic artists in this show have received. We see him poised at his easel just as he turns to look at the sitter (us).

Entangled Pasts explores how deeply the effects of colonialism have permeated the RA. This is a show that reveals the inextricable link between lauded British art and its deplorable colonial context. There is also space for the image-makers of today to receive appreciation for their skill and creativity in addition to the important perspectives they bring to the gallery space. It’s a place for critical reflection in order to consider how the past has shaped the world we live in now. What will the future of the RA look like?

Royal Academy of Arts, London: Entangled Pasts | Until 28 April

Image Credits:

  1. Installation view of the ‘Entangled Pasts, 1768–now. Art, Colonialism and Change’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (3 February – 28 April 2024), showing John Akomfrah CBE RA, Vertigo Sea, 2015, Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. © Smoking Dogs Films.
  2. Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Kujuan Buggie, 2024 Oil on canvas, 182 x 152 cm Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York; Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York/Los Angeles © Kehinde Wiley. Photography: Todd-White Art Photography.
  3. Lubaina Himid RA, Naming the Money, 2004 Mixed media installation with sound, dimensions variable National Museums Liverpool, International Slavery Museum, Gift of Lubaina Himid, 2013 Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and National Museums, Liverpool © Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Stuart Whipps.