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Entangled Pasts, 1768–Now: BAME Figures in Art Have Always Been Here and Are Not Going Anywhere.

By Mathilda Drukier

On display at the Royal Academy of Art until the 28th of April 2024, Entangled Pasts, 1768–Now looks at Britain’s history of colonialism through the art works of leading British artists of African, Caribbean, and South Asian descent. The monumental exhibition is one of the best the best I have seen, with its dramatic curtain décor and rooms with different atmospheres creating a journey for its audience. It is both a celebration of Black, Asian, and other ethnic minorities artists in Britain, as well as a reminder of Britain’s history of colonial atrocities and the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean. The exhibition brings to the foreground groups that have been left out of history and art history, making it an essential exhibition to see. If you do not go you are missing out on some beautiful works as presented in a masterclass curatorial effort by Professor Dorothy Price and Dr Esther Chadwick.

Tavares Strachan, The First Supper (Galaxy Black), 2023. View of artwork in situ, Royal Academy of Art, image courtesy of the artist and Perrotin, collection of Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland.

The exhibition begins outside in the courtyard of the Royal Academy, with a long table that pays homage to the last super with the seated sculptures of Black historical figures. The First Supper (Galaxy Black) by Tavares Strachan (2023) directly engages the viewer through the contrast of black and gold to create a dynamic and stunning piece. The work features figures such as Emperor Hailee Selassie of Ethiopia, Harriet Tubman, and Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut, on the far right. The beautiful mixture of black and gold highlights these figures creating a wonderful and celebratory work.

The RA has the ability to transport the viewer and is one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in London, with its high and ornate ceilings adding monumentality to the works. One of the elements that I found incredibly compelling was the mixing of older paintings from 1768-1840 with more contemporary works. These works remind us, as the exhibition’s title suggests, that BAME communities have always been present in British history and art history. Richard Evan’s portraits of King Henri Christophe of Haiti and his son Henry from c. 1818, for example, are incredibly regal and elegant. There are also portraits of slave traders and their family such as John Singleton Copley’s Mary and Elizabeth Royall whose family made money from the slave trade. This is part of the theme of ‘entangled pasts’, as the exhibition shows the atrocious actions of slave traders that led to there being  British Black, South Asian, and Caribbean diaspora in the UK.

Richard Evans, Henri Christophe, 1816, Oil on canvas. Image: Alfred Nemours Collection. 

The exhibition is also a celebration of these groups. The older works serve as a starting question that the contemporary works then engage with. I was incredibly excited going into the exhibition to see a work by Kerry James Marshall. This was my first time seeing anything by him in person. His depiction of Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776 (2007), is striking and a reminder of an artist whose works have been lost to history. Moorhead was an enslaved artist whose artistic talent has been written about though unfortunately none of his paintings survive. I was also excited to see Hew Locke’s Armada (2017–19), as I have loved his past works and his reconfiguring of colonial monumentality. The Armada is dramatic and fills the room in a ghostly way, displaying the sculptural talent of Locke to create monumental pieces that challenge coloniality. Another artist that I was thrilled to see after having been to her exhibition at the Tate Modern was Lubiana Himid who’s colourful and joyful figures, on closer inspection, are understood to depict enslaved peoples. When arriving behind the two-dimensional cut-outs the viewer realises that these figures have had their identity removed, as a small text on the back states who they once were and who they have been forced to become. There are so many amazing artists (including Yinka Shonabare’s beautiful sculptures) in this exhibition which I hope to see more and more of in museums. This exhibition contains some of the leading contemporary artists in the world. To have so many of them in one space was amazing. 

Kerry James Marshall, Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776, 2007, Acrylic on PVC Panel. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though the Royal Academy of Art has hosted many monumental exhibitions, this exhibition reminds us that it has taken the institution too long to have the works of predominantly BAME artists, who play a significant role in defining the contemporary art scene, in their main space. Still, the exhibition calls into question the roles of art institutions such as the Tate, National Gallery, and the RA itself, in the history of the slave trade. I hope however that this is just the beginning, and we will soon see the first female British BAME artist to take over the RA! More museums have been exhibiting the works of BAME artists and working on commissions with artists such as Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019), which Entangled Pasts shows sketches of. 

Lubiana Himid, Naming the Money, 2004. View of artwork in situ, National Museums Liverpool, photographed by Stuart Whipps, 2017. 

I look forward to going again to see this exhibition as it is rich in content, and I feel like I did not get the chance to see everything on my first viewing. It is a shame that it is only on for two months which is too short for any exhibition of this scale and monumentality. Go see it quickly so that you have time to revisit it!


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