The Arts and Empire

How did Britain’s Empire influence the creation and collection of art over the past 400 years? And how did artists themselves reinforce, resist and reflect the Empire in their work? Tate Britain presents a unique exhibition about Imperial visual culture which shows art from across the British Isles, North America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia and Africa.
The exhibition  brings together works to explore how artists from Britain and round the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the British Empire. Featuring a vast array of objects from collections across Britain, including maps, flags, paintings, photographs, sculptures and artefacts, the exhibition examines how the histories of the British Empire have shaped art past and present. Contemporary works within the exhibition suggest that the ramifications of the Empire are far from over. The exhibition reveals how the meanings of these objects have changed through history, and asks what they mean to us today.

The exhibition investigates the different routes by which works of art were created and collected. For the first time, historic paintings are shown with works including Indian miniatures and Maori artefacts, offering critical insight into how each was made, collected and categorised. The encounters between cultures are also explored. Starting in the 16th century, The exhibition shows how artists mapped the world and its resources. From Lambert and Scott’s 1731 painting of Bombay harbour to John Montresor’s 1766 Plan of the City of New York, these works depicted and claimed territories around the globe. Carefully staged paintings of international events also manipulated the sympathies of audiences in Britain, dramatising conquests, treaties and ‘last stands’. The exhibition also brings together grand portraits of key political figures by Augustus John and Joshua Reynolds. It examines how they were presented in ‘exotic’ or hybrid costume, showing how images reflected bonds of union but also established differences between cultural groups.

Artist and Empire demonstrates how in the 20th century artists around the world challenged Imperial ideology, and how contemporary artists reflect on these histories today. National art movements in places such as Bengal and Nigeria accompanied growing demands for independence, as reflected in the work of Jamini Roy and Uzo Egonu. Contemporary British artists, including Hew Locke and Andrew Gilbert, offer fresh interpretations of colonial imagery and confront the problematic legacies of Empire in the present day.

Facing death … George William Joy’s The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum, 26th January, 1885. Photograph: Leeds Museum and Galleries