Entangled Pasts at the Royal Academy of Arts 

‘Entangled Pasts: 1768 – now: Art, Colonialism and Change’ is a thought-provoking new survey show opening at the Royal Academy of Arts on 3rd February. The ambitious exhibition features more than 100 important contemporary and historic artworks to provoke a dialogue about the role of art in shaping narratives around empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism. ‘Entangled Pasts’ traces the artistic lineage of topics around colonialism from the 18th Century, when the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, through to the present day. When the artistic institution was founded it had indirect links to the British Empire and the slave trade, and this uncomfortable truth is addressed through the curation of the exhibition, which stems from the Royal Academy’s ongoing research into its links with colonialism. More than 50 artists connected to the institution explore the relationship between art and our understanding of the past. 

‘The First Supper’ (2021-23), a stunning new black and gold contemporary-Baroque sculpture by Bahamian-born artist Tavares Strachan, dominates the courtyard of the Royal Academy, where it will be on display until 28th April, 2024.  The sculpture took 4 years to make and visualises the artist’s commitment to telling the stories of individuals and communities who have been overlooked or forgotten, by presenting vast sculptural portraits of significant figures from Africa and the African diaspora including; resistance fighter Zumbi Dos Palmares; nurse Mary Seacole; activists Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Marsha P. Johnson; explorer Matthew Henson; astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence; politician Shirley Chisholm; Emperor Haile Selassie; musicians Sister Rosetta Tharpe and King Tubby; and poet Sir Derek Alton Walcott. 

A Young Black Artist: Joshua Reynolds ca. 1770 Oil on canvas 31 × 25 1/8 in. (78.7 × 63.8 cm) Place Created: England, Europe

In the main galleries of the RA, ‘Entangled Pasts: 1768 – now: Art, Colonialism and Change’ features leading contemporary artists including Frank Bowling RA, Sonia Boyce RA, Lubaina Himid RA, Isaac Julien RA, Hew Locke RA, Yinka Shonibare RA and Kara Walker Hon RA.  

Highlights of the exhibition include Isaac Julien’s 2019 film ‘Lessons of the Hour’, about the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Lubaina Himid’s colourful installation ‘Naming the Money’, featuring brightly painted life-size cut-out figures of artists and musicians with an accompanying soundscape; and Hew Locke’s epic ‘Armada’, a flotilla of ‘votive boats’ – models of boats from different periods and places – suspended from the ceiling. 

Installation view of the ‘Navigation Charts’ exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, 2017, showing Lubaina Himid RA, Naming the Money, 2004. © Lubaina Himid. Image courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and National Museums, Liverpool. © Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Stuart Whipps

Plus, powerful paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings and prints by El Anatsui, Barbara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Shahzia Sikander, John Akomfrah and Betye Saar.

Hew Locke RA installation at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photograph by Lee Sharrock

Contemporary artists are displayed in to dialogue with works by artists from the past, including Joshua Reynolds PRA, Thomas Gainsborough RA and John Singleton Copley RA, with the juxtaposition demonstrating how art is entangled with colonial histories and revealing the international underpinnings of ‘British’ art.  Artworks from the RA’s collection and archive are featured and range from painting, sculpture, immersive installation and film to works on paper and poetry. 

The Royal Academy decided to program the exhibition back in 2021 in response to the urgent public debates about the relationship between artistic representation and imperial histories. These debates were prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. Additionally, the RA’s Summer Exhibition 2021, coordinated by Yinka Shonibare with the theme ‘Reclaiming Magic’, aimed to “transcend the Western canon which formed the foundations of the Royal Academy”. 

‘Entangled Pasts: 1768 – now: Art, Colonialism and Change’  is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 3rd February to 28th April 2024: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/entangled-pasts

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