Untangling the Pasts of Slavery, Colonialism and Art

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Two and a half centuries after its creation, the Royal Academy of Arts in London — an artist-and-architect-led institution that is a bastion of the British establishment — is embracing inclusivity.

Last year, for the first time, it dedicated a major solo show to a woman, Marina Abramovic. Now comes “Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change,” an exhibition on how British art was implicated by slavery, with historic depictions of enslaved people displayed alongside contemporary works by artists of African and Caribbean origin.

The show is part of a reassessment of Britain’s colonial past by museums and cultural institutions, including the 129-year-old National Trust, a charity that runs historic houses and heritage sites across the country, and a few owners of stately homes. It is also a notable moment for the Royal Academy, which did not admit a Black artist to its membership until 2005.

Dorothy Price, the lead curator, stressed that the show was not “trawling back over a long-dead” past, but rather juxtaposing old and new art to give a more accurate picture of “multicultural, multiracial Britain.”

Hew Locke’s “Armada” (2017-2019), an installation of model ships and vessels, evokes Europe’s maritime history and its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.Credit…Hew Locke. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024. Tate. Royal Academy of Arts, London/David Parry

Squabbles over Britain’s legacy of slavery have flared up since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in May 2020. Two weeks later, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the United States and beyond, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist, was torn down in Bristol, in southwestern England.

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