The First Supper (2021-23), Tavares Strachan’s life-size recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the courtyard of the Royal Academy, the roles all played by heroes from black history.Photo: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian
The opening space is breathtaking: a circle of beautiful 18th-century portraits hanging in a darkened rotunda with spotlights. Ignatius Sancho, actor, writer, composer, the first man of African descent to vote in Britain, with a speech still fast on his lips, sits before Thomas Gainsborough in Bath. A young man, half-smiling but with worry on his brow, poses for John Singleton Copley in London. Francis Barber, servant and beloved companion of Samuel Johnson, holds his beautiful head high in Joshua Reynolds’ studio in Leicester Square. Barber becomes Dr.’s heir. Johnson.
Every sitter in every major painting is Black (including Kerry James Marshall’s contemporary depiction of Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African American artist whose life and work are known only through the fleeting praise of a 1773 poem). An entire gallery of black subjects: this has never happened before at the Royal Academy. It is an ideal start to the most dramatic, fascinating and radical exhibition that the RA will shake out in its 256-year history.
The explicit purpose of this exhibition, say the curators, is to explore how deeply the effects of colonialism have permeated the RA and its past, while presenting the actual experiences of black and brown people during those centuries. That’s why Gainsborough’s portrait hangs next to one of Sancho’s own coruscating letters: “I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please.” And Turner’s paintings of tumultuous oceans, where so many lives would be lost during gruesome transatlantic slave voyages, appear alongside Ellen Gallagher’s seemingly abstract paintings, in which small details turn out to be drowning limbs and faces.
On the opposite wall, Frank Bowling stands enormous Middle passage from 1970 retells the story in blood red and burning gold, repeating the tragic theme in the vague outlines of Africa and America in that dizzying force field of paint.
The historical art has been judiciously selected to shock. Johann Zoffany’s 1769 portrait of the Young family stood up in frivolous fancy dress, Sir William – governor of Dominica, slave trader – sawing away a cello in the middle and positioning an enslaved black boy right next to the blondest and palest young scion, who looks angelically upward for a scandalous contrast. Copley’s portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, daughters of a slave trader in Antigua, gives only the barest hint of their background in the Antiguan hummingbird that supposedly perches on Mary’s small white hand.
And before anyone starts imagining that Reynolds, the RA’s first president, was an unqualified abolitionist, look at his towering portrait of the future George IV in silver satin and blue velvet, his garments intimately adjusted by a black servant whose face Of course we can’t see it.
In Reynolds’ portrait, George IV has his clothes intimately adjusted by a black servant whose face we cannot see, of course.
A mahogany paint box of the kind used by both Reynolds and Turner appears much later in the show, lying in a historic glass case. In fact, it’s an exquisitely caustic mockup by Keith Piper, founder of the groundbreaking 1980s BLK Art Group, with each pan of pigment classified – as if for a British overseer – in tiny gradations from dark to light skin tone .
Each gallery has a different mood and theme, choreographed for constant syncopation. A room of quietly beautiful prints and watercolors travels from India to Tahiti through changing timescales. Another juxtaposes 18th-century paintings of the Caribbean as a perfect paradise of peace and plenty, of all social and racial equality, with Karen McLean’s 2010 epigrammatic installation entitled Primitive things: huts. Changing photo projections of enormous houses in Trinidad flicker over wooden huts no bigger than the fragments of parquet from which they are made. Wealth overshadows poverty; greatness glides over modest scale.
Isaac Julien’s film Lessons of the Hour plays in a gallery lined with velvet curtains. American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, played by Ray Fearon, delivers his visionary lecture to an audience of white Victorians in Edinburgh. On a piano in that film you see a small edition of Hiram Powers’ sculpture The Greek slave, a nubile nude that was insanely famous across America in the 19th century. In one version, Powers swapped chains for handcuffs, as an allusion to the growing anti-slavery movement. But there are several variants seen in Entangled Pasts so you can see the different stages of his propaganda.
This is creative, engaging and deeply intelligent: ideas embodied through the art itself rather than through the numbing wall texts that guide us around similar shows. For there have been more such institutional self-interrogations recently, including last year’s reorganization of Tate Britain in light of its foundations in colonial slavery.
Nothing in that reorganization, however, is as devastatingly direct as the triangulation of three works in the gallery dedicated to the work here. whiteness. This subject goes in many directions, from images of cotton fields where enslaved people sometimes worked from as young as six, such as Frederick Douglass, to paintings such as those by William Mulready. The toy seller (1863), where a black man casts a weary look at a whiny white child who is too scared to look at him from mommy’s arms.
You immediately look with new eyes at the vast expanse of white cotton that stretches all the way to the table of postprandial fellows in Frederick William Elwell’s 1938 portrait of the Royal Academy’s Selection and Hanging Committee. And at the hideous painting of two redheads white-skinned girls struggling to cover their nakedness with white cloths from prying eyes in Frank Dicksee’s 1892 Shocked. Dicksee, the future president of the RA, gave a lecture to his students: “Our ideal of beauty must be that of the white man.”
Directly opposite hangs a pristine white sheet, tied to a line. A black steam iron is chained to an ironing board below; the shape suddenly brings to mind those terrifying diagrams of slave ships. This installation by the great perennial artist Betye Saar, born in California in 1926, is so strikingly concise that you barely notice the KKK monogram embroidered on the sheet.
Lubaina Himid’s life-size cutouts of enslaved Africans who were forced to work as dog trainers, dancers, toymakers and ceramicists, for example, when shipped to 18th-century Bristol, will be given two full galleries in which to spread their joyful yet poignant presence (the tragic labels on their backs fully visible for once). During this exhibition they speak directly to other figures, but also to the life-size recreation of Tavares Strachan The last Supper in black and gold in the RA courtyard outside, all roles played by heroes from black history.
A key to these figures is included; and it unfortunately remains necessary. That’s about a question that was raised almost imperceptibly at the beginning of this show. For Dorothy Price and her exceptional team of female curators did not include Marshall’s imaginary portrait of Scipio Moorhead solely for its quality. Who among us has heard of this disappeared painter? Who can say with certainty that this is really the case is Francis Barber in Joshua Reynolds’ portrait? And why do we have no idea who paints John Singleton Copley? Pay attention during this show and art will challenge history: who ignored the humanity and identity of all these long-lost people?
• Entangled Pasts: Art, Colonialism and Change is on view at the Royal Academy, London until April 28