Art, Empire and Nation

The sun has set on the British Empire. But, whilst the ‘high noon’ of Imperial Britain is decidedly over, it casts a long shadow. In 2020, BlackLivesMatter protestors toppled the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Urgent pleas to ‘de-colonise’ the nation and (art) history followed. The session answers the call to re-evaluate Empire; examining the confluence of art, national identity and the Imperial past.  

However, we welcomed a broad spectrum of submissions: from those that look at the British Empire in the context of British identity and cultural politics to those that stretch the notions of Empire and nation to non-Western frameworks. For instance, we are keen to examine the way in which dialogues about the Modern within erstwhile colonial strongholds (Asia, the Middle East, Africa) were often funnelled into anti-colonial nationalist movements. Relatedly, we welcomed explorations of how Imperialism influenced the current swelling tide of right-wing nationalism in Euro-America or outside it (e.g. India). Topics could include contemporary art and its engagement with the Imperial legacy (e.g. national monuments) in Britain, but we are keen to dismantle the usual conflation in the UK of Empire being equivalent to ‘the British Empire’ –a monolithic one at that. Hence, the convenors encourage submissions on the intersection of art and nationalism in Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Cornwall in the context of British colonialism. We also welcomed papers that explore art and nation within ‘other’ Imperial encounters, including (but not limited to) the Dutch East Indies, the Ottoman or Habsburg domains and Russia. 

Session Convenors:  

Elizabeth Robles, History of Art, University of Bristol, UK 

Zehra Jumabhoy, History of Art, University of Bristol, UK 


Solmaz Mohammadzadeh Kive, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture & Environment, University of Oregon, USA

Nationalism and Orientalism in The Grammar of Ornament

In 1856, Owen Jones published The Grammar of Ornament, one of the earliest theories of decorative art. Already a famous (or rather infamous) admirer of the “Moresque” style, Jones praised many non-European traditions in this book. Yet, his writings were filled with Orientalist tropes and explicit denigrations, for instance admiring Indian geometric patterns and calling Indians “half-savage.” Such contradictions are often explained in the context of the design reformers’ attempt to reinvent a modern national style through a return to the basic universal principles, which held true even for the “savage” tribes. In this paper, I would extend the discussion on The Grammar’s Eurocentric rhetoric to the structure of the book in the context of his criticism to the contemporary historicism.

After introducing “general principles” of ornament in thirty-seven “propositions,” Jones divides the main text of the Grammar into twenty different styles, like “Egyptian,” “Roman,” and “Arabian,” with the last six chapters offering an evolutionary narrative of England. The book’s final structure, however, shifted from his earlier draft. “On the True and the False in the Decorative Arts” of 1852, which laid out the overall argument of The Grammar, was structured around the “Propositions,” each mixing various styles. This paper analyzes Jones’ move from universalism to cultural specification in the larger context of sciences that dealt with human classification, especially anthropology and ethnography, to explore different aspects of the Grammar’s constructed dichotomy, which goes beyond contrasting a European core with its periphery to situate Britain at the height of an evolutionary path.

Manuela Portales Sanfuentes, University College London 

An invisible collection: Latin American objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum 

Latin America has been and continues to be underrepresented across both British galleries and specialised literature on British museums’ collections. Furthermore, Latin American objects have been often studied from an anthropological or ethnographic perspective, thus disregarding other type of productions from the region. This paper examines acquisition and display practices of Latin American items in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London. Of more than 60,000 objects on exhibition, only 0.17% are from Latin America, and articles from countries such as Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela are not displayed at all. Drawing on a review of historical sources and internal files at the V&A archives, interviews, the analysis of the museum’s rooms, the display of objects and gallery texts, I argue that Latin American objects do not fit into the museum’s classificatory schemes and have been approached from imposed Western aesthetic criteria. I contend that miscomprehension and omission of the region by the V&A results from its conformation as an imperial museum, primarily designed to highlight British productions, including from its colonies and areas of geopolitical interest, as well as to reinforce a civilising narrative. Latin America has been rendered invisible and inadequately depicted at the V&A collections since the foundation of the museum in 1852 until the present time. This paper aims to stimulate a more inclusive representation of Latin American applied arts and design, urging for an epistemological turn, together with a revitalised collecting process for the future that recognises the exchange of people, research, and ideas

Claudia Di Tosto, University of Warwick & Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art  

Exhibiting the nation: the British Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 

My PhD project focuses on the history of the British Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale from 1948 to present, with an emphasis on the relationship between exhibition culture, national identity and global politics. The two main objectives are to re-contextualise the exhibitions at the British Pavilion alongside the decolonisation process that started with the dismantling of the British Empire after the Second World War and to understand how the shifting conceptions around British identity were reflected throughout the displays of art works in the international context of the Biennale. I will argue that in order to gain a more complex understanding of not only the British Pavilion as a site of national self-definition and representation of Britain and Britishness, but also the relationship between the British Pavilion and Commonwealth countries within the peculiar ecosystem represented by the Biennale, there needs to be greater attention paid to the global politics that reshaped the world order after the Second World War. What I propose for the AAH 2023 Annual Conference is a paper divided into two sections. In the first one, I will generally illustrate the project, also discussing how my research questions have been informed by postcolonial theory, specifically in understanding ideas about nation, nationhood and national identity in relation to empire and decolonisation. This methodological angle represents an original approach to the study of the history of the British Pavilion, which, until now, has been mainly discussed in relation to Britain’s role within the context of Western Europe’s politics. Then in the second part, I will focus on specific case studies (e.g. 1948, 1956, 1968).

Nicola Foster, PhD,Senior Research Fellow (Visual Arts), Solent University, Southampton  

Two Exhibition Interventions at the Rijksmuseum: SLAVERNIJ (2021) and REVOLUSI! (2022) 

Discussions of colonialism are often associated with empire. In Britain and the Anglophone world, The British Empire is often perceived as the typical form of government responsible for colonialism. This paper seeks to look at the relationship between art, colonialism and the formation of nations, from a slightly different perspective, that of the newly formed Dutch Republic and its recent representation of both slavery, (SLAVERNIJ) and the struggle for independence of its former colony Indonesia, (REVOLUSI!) as two moments of art exhibitions as interventions at the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands, set up by the young republic in an attempt to unify the nation in 1795, following the French Revolution declaration of the Louvre as a national museum. It displays some 800 Dutch artefacts as well as a small Asian collection. Today, it holds a historical collection in a 19C purpose-built building which show cases its master works in the permanent display which has not been radically changed since. The Netherlands today is a constitutional monarchy, and its demography has changed to include many migrants from its former colonies. Hence, in recent years the museum has been resorting to temporary exhibitions alongside its permanent display. The paper will explore two recent exhibitions which seek to engage with the nation’s involvement overseas: an exhibition which focused on the Dutch involvement with Slavery and the struggle for independence of one of its former colonies. Both exhibitions included stories of how both affected different social communities in the colonies and in the Netherlands and displayed various artefacts which previously were excluded from its collection. It also added notes on some of its key collection works to show their involvement in both events.

Samina Iqbal, Assistant Professor, Lahore School of Economics, Lahore, Pakistan 

Pakistani Contemporary Miniature Painting: Tradition, Authenticity and Validation 

 In the last three decades, contemporary miniature painting from Pakistan has gained a significant position in the global art market. Encouraged by western attention, some miniature artists claim that by practicing the virtue of traditional miniature painting, they are shouldering the yoke of traditional Indian painting.

This paper explores the complex – and still unresolved – issues common among non-western cultures coming to terms with post-colonial life, facing the challenges of colonial legacy and its contradictions. More specifically, it focuses on how contemporary Pakistani artists address questions related to the merit of the fine arts, its validation, and credibility in the context of western hegemony. While tracing the complex development of traditional miniature painting from the Mughal courts and British Empire to the contemporary era, the paper will analyze the myriad ways contemporary Pakistani miniaturists assimilated vernacular and foreign and sacred and secular traditions to create unique visual syntax. These new visual forms emanate from an ongoing dialogue between still present deeply rooted traditions and the forces of modernity, which challenge and upend those traditions. However, one wonders if practicing the virtuosity of miniature painting enables one to revive or bridge the broken link with the tradition and participate in the hegemonic discourses of exotic, authentic, and marginalized or if it is merely an infatuation with the past.

Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art (Emeritus), University of Dundee 

Cornwallis’s statue: a perspective on indigeneity and empire 

In 2018 a statue was removed from a park in the city of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was a statue of Edward Cornwallis (1713-76), and it was removed at the insistence of the indigenous Mi’kmaq community (first nation). Between 1749 and 1752 Cornwallis had attempted to drive their ancestors out of their homeland. In terms of oppression of indigenous people in the interests of empire, in previous years Cornwallis had adopted such oppression as a policy in Scotland. There the British troops under his command in 1746 had engaged in systematic atrocity against Gaelic-speaking Highlanders just as they would with respect to the Mi’kmaq a few years later. I use those two strands of British imperial atrocity, one within the landmass of Great Britain, the other in a colonised territory, to illuminate issues of imperialism and indigeneity. I illuminate such imperial repressive measures further by exploring the legalised oppression of the Highlands which included the banning of tartan dress for some thirty years, a very literal cultural removal, which has been the subject of a number of twenty-first century Scottish artists. I also note that controversial statues (Cornwallis, Colston, Clive) are often erected not primarily as memorials to the apparent subject but as ideological markers, usually well over a century after the death of the apparent subject. Clive’s statue opens up another area (to which I will allude briefly), namely the inferiorising (to use Fanon’s term) of Indian culture, and its defence by art historians such as Coomaraswamy.

Jeffrey Say, Programme Leader, MA in Asian Art Histories, Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore

Visual Re-imaginations of the Raffles Statue and its Colonial Legacy 

Ever since the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was unveiled on 27 June 1887 at the Padang to mark Jubilee Day (it was moved to its present site in front of the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1919), the official narrative that he was the founder of modern Singapore has been maintained. This state construction of history was further validated by a polymarble copy of the original bronze unveiled in 1972 on the site that Raffles purportedly landed, on the north bank of the Singapore River, with a plaque stating that it was his genius that transformed Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a modern metropolis. To critics, this only served to erase the indigenous contribution to Singapore’s modernity and overlook archaeological evidence that it had been a thriving entrepot centuries before the arrival of Raffles. When Singapore celebrated the bicentennial of its founding in 2019, the role of Raffles was critically re-assessed and there was even clamour for the Raffles statue to be removed. As part of the celebrations, there were a number of artistic activities that problematised the historical importance of Raffles and that appears to signal a shift in the official narrative, short of removing the sculpture. The Raffles statue have been the subject of much post-modern irony and parody in plays, literature and the visual arts. This paper aims to discuss the visual and conceptual strategies employed by artists and the creative processes in which they sought to dismantle the myth of Raffles, unerase local histories and re-imagine a decolonised Singapore.

Astrid Korporaal, Kingston University, London 

Proxies of Colonial Inheritance in the works of Erika Tan and Paula Albuquerque 

Postcolonial and decolonial theorists have emphasized the need to decolonize thought and aesthetics to overcome the objectifying separations wrought by modern imperialism. However, many representations of encounters across identities still rely on a logic of proxy and a genealogy of inheritance. Museum projects that attempt to reevaluate colonial legacies often do so by restaging encounters between two cultures linked to an empire’s expansion, appointing artists or objects as representatives of a particular identities and histories. In this paper, I propose to look at ways the role of the proxy as a stand-in for collective authority and the inheritor of a linear history is questioned by artists. I discuss Erika Tan’s video work Balik Kampong – Return by Proxy, which activates the voice of weaver Halimah who performed in the Malayan Pavilion of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, and Paula Albuquerque’s The Symbol of the Thing in the Thing Itself, which stages a deep-fake re-reading of a sixteenth-century Portuguese poem celebrating colonial expansion. Placing both artists’ work in relation to an art historical lineage that reproduces images of colonial discovery, encounter, and delegated authority, I argue that they interrupt the lineage of identifying new, ‘other’ worlds along with entities that represent and encompass their value. They challenge the simplistic use of technology as a stand-in for the many afterlives of colonialism in ways that refuse the symbolic figuration of colonized subjects, prompting us to engage with a multiplicity of interlocutors and ancestors. 

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