Sunday 30 June 2019

Race and art

Reframing slavery

  • Helen Legg, new director of Tate Liverpool, is determined to acknowledge Britain’s part in the slave trade
  • She hopes to reappraise how the gallery’s collection is interpreted for visitors
  • This job is so vast that a new body of scholarly study will have to be created

By Arifa Akbar

A bronze frieze on a south-facing plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square captures Nelson’s dying moments, just below the central, towering column on which he stands immortalised. It features his fleet in the heat of battle, some men holding the wounded Nelson in their arms, others brandishing muskets or hoisting sails.

Look to the left corner of John Edward Carew’s relief and you see the face and features of a black sailor, fighting for his country in 1805. This, for the historian David Olusoga, is an example of “British history hidden in plain view” – black Britons who were an active part of the nation’s story that remain invisible, unnamed figures in official records: “Black history is a series of missing chapters from British history,” argues Olusoga. “I’m trying to put those bits back in.”

A black sailor is hidden in plain view in this Trafalgar Square plinth

Helen Legg wants to do the same thing in Britain’s art world. The Trafalgar Square sailor, for her, is one figure among innumerable others peeping out from the canvases, sculptures and friezes of British artworks who have too often remained in the shadows, barely even named.

Official art history, and the exhibitions and displays we see in some of the nation’s biggest museums and galleries, are full of such lacunae, she believes.

Helen Legg, Tate Liverpool's new director

In March 2018, Legg was named the new director of Tate Liverpool and took up the job last summer. Born in Wolverhampton and beginning her curatorial career at Birmingham’s IKON gallery, she left a highly successful, seven-year tenure as director at Spike Island Gallery in Bristol to take up her position in Liverpool. The significance of both Bristol and Liverpool to the transatlantic slave trade has not passed her by. When she was at Bristol, she staged a show that directly referenced this past. It featured the works of Lubaina Himid, the British Zanzibar visual artist and first woman of colour to win the Turner Prize in 2017 (the Spike Island show was part of her prize-winning submission).

To show Himid’s pioneering work on the docks in Bristol, where Spike Island gallery stands, felt important, says Legg. “It didn’t feel in any way inflammatory to me. I was just dealing with facts and a desire to say ‘here is what happened’. At the time we were developing it, it seemed to me that we were going through a period in art when politics was being downplayed. People wanted to focus on form and aesthetics. But then the Brexit referendum happened, and everything changed. To present Lubaina’s work in a way that downplayed its politics when racism was absolutely becoming a force again, felt to me very negligent,” says Legg.

Lubaina Himid was the first woman of colour to win the Turner Prize

The display included a series of cut-outs taken from canonical portraiture of wealthy Europeans called Naming the Money (2004). The hundred cut-out figures represented the unnamed black figures – “slaves” and “servants”–  in the shadows of 17th century society portraits. “Very often, there is a single black servant in the background. Never is that individual named, we never know who they were or where they came from. They are just silent status symbols of white European wealth. Lubaina set about naming them and telling their stories.”

The reaction was extraordinary, she adds. “We didn’t get any anger but what we did get was a much more diverse audience than we’d ever had. People were saying the most extraordinary things; one woman of colour said ‘I have been back three times with my children and friends because I’ve never seen a black body represented in a gallery before’.”

new ways of seeing

Young Black Man Holding a Basket of Fruit and Young Woman Stroking a Dog, painted around 1682 by the French painter, Antoine Coypel (1661-1722) shows one of the first African servants in French painting. The figure, even more unusually, is in the foreground rather than in the shadows. Held at the Louvre in Paris, it featured in an exhibition this year at the Musee d’Orsay called ‘Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse’ displaying masterpieces by some of France’s most important artists renamed to honour their black subjects.

Legg shows every sign of being just as revisionist in Liverpool. There is, first of all, the need to fully acknowledge the landmarks and legacies of slavery and the gallery’s proximity to them.

“The Liverpool docks were the most advanced docks anywhere in the world; that’s why they are a Unesco World Heritage site today. What complicates a broader understanding of this legacy is that our involvement was always hidden. We sent ships from these docks to the Africas. They picked people up and exchanged them for goods in the Americas and then brought the goods back to Britain. What we saw here was cotton and sugar and other produce that helped us become a wealthier nation.”

The dock area today is a far cry from the technological and industrial hub of two centuries ago. It is a gentrified quadrangle of hipsterish shops and cafes. A bright pink, vintage ice-cream van selling doughnuts to sightseers sits around the corner, a stone’s throw from the city’s International Slavery Museum. 

Yet the slave legacy seeps deep into the architecture of the gallery. “The buildings around the docks were made to take goods from those ships. They would offload here before going to the mills in Manchester,” says Legg. “Tate Liverpool is in one of the warehouses used to offload goods from the ships coming in. That’s such a potent history for our building. Liverpool’s historical relationships are fundamental to what this place is and how it has evolved.”


The Death of Nelson, painted in 1807 by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise, depicts a fatally wounded Nelson on HMS Victory. Among those gathered around him is a black sailor and cook. There were known to be people of African descent in Nelson’s crew, although they tended to work in the lower ranks. Not every painting of this era acknowledged the presence and contribution of non-white labour.

More generally, she wants to see the creation of a dedicated space that documents the effects of empire. “What you see in museums [in Liverpool and across the UK] are some amazing historic collections, which are here because people were heading over there and bringing objects back that eventually entered our museums. There is light and shade in British history but we have to take on board our place in those parts that were incredibly traumatic and complicated and do it honestly.”

As part of that, she hopes to reappraise the way that Tate Liverpool’s collection is displayed and interpreted . “Very often, the interpretation [of a painting or drawing] will obscure some of the facts of what is happening in the work. It’s the same thing that Lubaina was doing in looking afresh at the 17th-century paintings.”

Ideally, this reappraisal should become part of the teaching of art history at colleges and universities, she thinks. In Bristol, Legg headed a Black British Artists Research Group with Dr Dorothy Price, a reader in art history at Bristol University, who introduced questions about ways of seeing art, and reflections on undocumented lives, into the study of art history at the university.

The gaps in teaching are huge, says Dr Price. “What is taught at both school and largely replicated at university is a standard history of Western art from the Medieval and Italian Renaissance through to European and North American modernism. It is an art history of Western whiteness that is taught and very rarely dismantled. Issues around critical race studies, if they are taught at all, might be confined to the occasional methodology classes on ‘Orientalism and post-colonialism’ but which still leave the basic canonical structures of white western art history intact.”


Manet’s Olympia‘, from 1863, features a white courtesan in the foreground with a black servant – typically –behind. The maid has become a hot topic among contemporary scholars, especially the lack of art historical commentary on her. Olympia was created 15 years after racial slavery was abolished in France but racist stereotypes continued. There are pictorial precedents for named white, naked women being pictured with unnamed black female servants such as Charles Jalabert’s Odalisque (1842). Olympia was modelled by Victorine Meurent, a painter and model. The model for the servant was known only by her first name, Laure. Described as African or Caribbean by art historians, she is thought to have met Manet while working as a nursemaid in Paris.

The scale of reappraisal that Legg wants to see is so vast that a new body of scholarly study will have to be created. It is, in effect, art history that has yet to be written and while it is an exciting prospect, it will take years of cresearch.

There is also the question of who walks through the gallery’s doors, which is inextricably linked to the kinds of shows it stages. When in 2016 Tate held an open call for a new series of research groups, Dr Price noticed that while there were studies into landscape, Scottish art, women artists, and more, no one explicitly was addressing issues of race within British art. A group was set up with the initial aim of considering audiences. “The topic was of increasing concern to many members of the group since cultural institutions of art in Britain remain relentlessly white spaces,” says Dr Price.

The task of changing constituent audiences remains huge, she adds: “It was clear to me – and it’s not rocket science – that changing the content of exhibitions has huge potential to change its audiences; so the real question becomes one of political will, in my opinion. If you decide as a museum or gallery curator to host an exhibition that celebrates black people’s creativity, you are more likely to attract black audiences to see it.”

The Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who deals with themes of race and inequality, has a show at Legg's gallery

Legg wants to draw visitors from across the intersections of class, race and communities in Liverpool. She has announced a solo exhibition in December by Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist whose work deals with themes of race and inequality. His exhibition “Amalgam” features the story of a small island off the coast of Maine that expelled its indigenous community in 1912 to make way for tourists, leaving some islanders involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions. Another show next spring by the South African artist Candice Breitz will feature a video installation that explores the narration of the global refugee crisis.

There are also plans for a radical rehang of the gallery’s displays to be more reflective of the city’s history. To that end, she hopes to place art by well-known figures such as Lowry and Hockney alongside contemporary works that present a more complex picture of Northern art histories.

“I think it’s really important to show Lowry next to an artist like Himid so we see the British industrial history of a place like Manchester and at the same time, also see a mixed-race woman who grew up in Preston reflecting on what brought her here, historically. It’s about cross-cultural dialogue so that a white factory worker in Manchester can see themselves reflected as well as a mixed-race teenager – and understand that they are both part of British society and art history.”

America’s visual arts community has been far more open to the exploration of its slave legacy and also to black artists, she says. “The American visual art community is dealing with slave legacies in a significant way. Right now, I can think of several African American artists who are making some of the most exciting works in contemporary art.”

Frank Bowling in 1962. He has waited five decades for a show at a major gallery

The career trajectory of the British artist Frank Bowling, the first black Royal Academician who found success in America decades ago, is a perfect example of this lag. A contemporary of Hockney who showed as much promise, he left Britain, frustrated at being pigeonholed, and flourished in New York. The Whitney Museum exhibited his work in its 1971 biennial; now, over five decades later, Tate Britain is staging the first major exhibition of his work in the UK.

For years, Himid’s work was shown in one-off shows and council-run museums and community spaces. When in 1985 she secured a space at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, she was given a corridor for the show, “The Thin Black Line”.

Changes in recent years bring hope. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris recently focused on the forgotten black models of the French avant-garde in Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse”, while Barbara Walker recently staged her show, “Vanishing Point”, at Hastings Contemporary (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) which revisited two Old Masters from the National Gallery’s collection in London to reappraise questions of race and representation.

Barbara Walker's "Vanishing Point" revisited two Old Masters from the National Gallery

Legg is resolved to take this further: “For me, empire and slavery seem to be the histories that underpin modern Britain in terms of race relations, international relations and art history. I don’t think we can understand our present condition unless we can understand the condition from which it originated,” she says.

“Nowhere are we really pushing this discussion to the forefront but it seems like such a vital one to have. It is essential to tackle the histories that we have somehow swept under the carpet. This needs to be a long-term effort, and it will take time, but it’s not really tenable to move forward without it.”

 The Captive Slave was painted by John Philip Simpson in 1827 and exhibited in London that year. Until it was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, it had not been displayed in public for 180 years. Its subject, a manacled man, strongly suggests Simpson intended it as a statement against slavery. The sitter is thought to be an American-born actor, Ira Aldridge, who was born a free man and educated in New York City. He left America because of the lack of acting opportunities for a man of colour and became a Shakespearean actor in Europe, despite racism from some critics.

Photographs from Alamy, Getty Images, courtesy of Tate Liverpool and Hastings Contemporary (formerly Jerwood Gallery).

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