Polemical text and review of “Entangled Pasts 1768 – now – Art, Colonialism and change” at the Royal Academy of Art, London, UK for The New Art Examiner

I decided to use the current show at The Royal Academy as a material concrete model to expand my thinking to understand “The Conservative Revolution in Art” and Neoliberalism, specifically Neoliberal institutions and Neoliberal art, through clarifying and expanding new concepts to rethink and update “PostAutonomy”, “A critique of Total Power” and the new term of “Neoliberal effect” used by Neoliberal institutions, to clarify what l understand by “Cultural/temporal looping”, as the non development in art, through Neoliberal institutions destruction of oppositional thinking and positions and appropriating oppositional discourse and narratives and repurposing the narrative as its own to give the illusion of tolerance and inclusivity.

It struck me recently that any analysis of Neoliberalism has to take into account how to understand Neoliberal art production in detail and even more so to understand Neoliberal institutions in detail, as “part of the practice and thinking into Post Autonomy.” So why doesn’t a practice work and what are the problems with institutions.

Exhibition of Palestinian art near Euston

Entangled Pasts:  Art, Colonialism, Change        At the Royal Academy of Art, London.

Although the title is Entangled Pasts: Art, Colonialism, Change, the actual theme of the show currently at the Royal Academy of Art (RA) is the history of the RA and how socio-political issues are refracted through mainstream western art, history, knowledge? How do we then understand the function of an institution fronting the Conservative revolution in art in the UK?

What does it mean for the Royal Academy to stage an exhibition in 2024 that reflects on its role in helping to

establish a canon of Western art history within the contexts of British colonialism, empire, and enslavement? Why now, and why does it matter? What were the conditions that led the Royal Academy, along with many other nationally significant cultural institutions (including the National Trust, English Heritage, Fitzwilliam Museum, Tate, and the National Gallery), to recently investigate their own entanglements with Britain’s colonial pasts? What can art bring to the wider public conversation about history?” P. 11, Catalogue

The Royal Academy of Art is central to the reinvention of Modernism, staging shows such as Sensation, and securing the Modern arts canon with shows of Munch, Bacon and Baselitz. The new large-scale exhibition at the Royal Academy can be linked to similar recent revisions and changes to the role of art in the UK, and for that reason shares similar methodologies and objectives, although this is far more ambitious and systematic, with the appearance of wanting to engage with the history of the British Empire and its legacy. The title appears to suggest a broad analysis of key problems facing us today – art, colonialism, and change. As such it suggests a decolonisation of the museum and a form of Institutional critique. However, what we get is something entirely different.

To piece together the message the RA show communicates it is necessary to understand the works that are met leading into the show, the structure and sequence of the rooms that make up the exhibition, the mixing of works in each room, and the overall design of the exhibition. As well, we should understand the implication of its wider collaboration with the Courtauld, Oxford University, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, and J. A. Projects, led by Jayden Ali with Abby Bird and Brian Yue, who designed the exhibition and constructed the look and narrative projected by the exhibition on the history of the Royal Academy.


    Images from J.A. Projects website https://ja-projects.com/projects

The exhibition traces colonialism, slavery, and the Atlantic slave trade through the history of the RA and art works by RA members. They highlight its beginning as the foundation of the Autonomy of Art at the height of colonialism and the slave trade. But the principal story is race, the story of the RA in relationship to race, slavery, especially from Africa, the Negro and blackness. The exhibition links recent history, from the death of George Floyd, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the restructuring and social engineering that visibly took place during the pandemic, to the bodies and politics of blackness.

Argentinian scholar Walter D. Mignolo has argued, decoloniality ‘calls for both civil and epistemic disobedience’, through which his readers are urged to ‘delink’ from the colonial order so that they can strive for re-existence’. Mignolo identifies ‘the Colonial Matrix of Power’ as one that ‘controls and touches upon all aspects and trajectories of our lives’. His analysis of the necessity for civil and epistemic disobedience has been central to rethinking the relationships between modernity and coloniality. Mignolo’s writing seeks methods for delinking from the formations of knowledge and power that structure contemporary society as an inheritance of colonial pasts.

Structurally, institutions like the Royal Academy are closely entwined with matrices of colonial power, but individual, independent artists operating under its auspices also have the capacity for epistemic disobedience through artworks that interrogate, subvert, and nuance the prevailing order and whose meanings shift over time and in different viewing contexts.

So, the principal curators knit together a simple narrative that link the overarching themes and issues, starting with RA artists’ engagement with symbols of colonialism and Walter Magnolio’s definition of post colonialism and decolonisation, while acknowledging that they are unable to provide an overview and complete story of colonialism and related issues, the difficulties and contradiction of an institution decolonising itself, yet offering space for its artists to rupture colonialism and white Eurocentric epistemology.

Whilst the exhibition looks at the invention of whiteness and blackness, and the role the RA played in the revolt against the avant-garde in the 1930’s, the exhibition doesn’t provide a concrete and precise definition of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, power, the role of art, nor the correct terms and definitions and contexts by which to reach an understanding of colonialism and how it can be ruptured. Not rupturing and reconfiguring the global capitalist and imperial system and its religion, that firmly locates everyone and everything within its system of meaning, hierarchical organisation and values leaves us without the tools to recognise the visible traces of these mechanisms today. Instead, it rewrites and imagines another history, where people of colour or peoples of the British Empire, had a role in the RA from its inception, painted iconic works or held seats of power.

The show continues the reinvention of Western art institutions from approximately 2015, when mainstream western art institutions designated themselves safe places to depict issues of history, colonialism, and slavery, while guarding at the same time, art, its institutions and history against criticism and questioning. At the RA, we can see the reinvention and expansion of western global art with the “world filtered through art”, that became apparent from 2010.

The exhibition defines power, colonialism, and imperialism in Modernist terms, of presence, the dichotomy of black & white, embodied in mainstream art forms, such as paintings & sculpture, exhibited in a gallery or museum. No work or methodology ruptures the comfortable coexistence of traditional forms, but instead challenges this configuration in the constellation of works through situating in the same space time, past and recent work. Although the exhibition starts at the time of the establishment of the RA, with the mixture of contemporary and historical works, there is a sense of ahistoricism and rupturing genealogy, flatlining the work, where both traditional forms and recent forms sit comfortably in the visitor’s space, so that there is no disruption between the forms. There is something similar going on that we find in Goshka Macuga’s curatorial methodology of dehistoricising, depoliticising and reinventing all works through remixing an institution’s archives and collection to rupture a white Eurocentric colonial and imperial art history.

The encounter with the exhibition starts with Tavares Strachan’s remake of Leonardo’s Last Supper in the RA courtyard. Then, entering the exhibition through a small side door, a confrontation in the first room of portraits and sculptures of Africans followed by a sequence of rooms which evoke different places, such as the British Museum. Each room is constructed in a similar way, with a central work or focal point, small works on the walls, including paintings of British Kings, generals who died in colonial wars, colonial wars in North America and India, the exchange of cultural forms, paintings by William Hodges who accompanied Cook’s voyage of discovery in the Pacific Ocean and Australia.

What comes through is both resistance to realism and militant works challenging the organisation of the exhibition and its logic, so that colonialism, and the interpretation of events are filtered through mainstream Eurocentric art, in an ambiguous semi-poetic language of work by Hew Locke, Isaac Julien, John Akomfrah and Yinka Shonibare. Can a language break and undermine Eurocentric Western mainstream language by using a Eurocentric mainstream art language? Maybe there is a hint, but l am not convinced. The most convincing approach is Areen’s appropriation of mainstream art signs, emptying out the art as no one single work convincingly engages with the issues set out by the exhibition. Although the selected works and display are impeccable, of the very highest order and highest ambition, there is something intentionally missing; difficult conceptual and contemporary art. The curators have instead opted for familiar work, an accessible language, and close link between past and recent art forms, which is why you find classical art merging into the space of recent art forms and those from different cultures.

Despite the intricate exhibition designs of each room, quite often the design is intended to use works as background for the show’s stars, and to lead the viewer into large spectacular installations or the two rooms set aside for the cut- out painted figures at the end of the exhibition. Although the last room is more sober, a sculpture asking for global justice and a remake of the empty fourth plinth seeking environmental justice is admirable but tokenistic.

In reviews of recent exhibitions, New York based critic Mostafa Heddaya, has provided the most insightful analysis of contemporary art at this stage of western art history citing fundamental flaws in recent contemporary art and exhibitions. In his review of the PS1 show Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 at MoMA PS1, New York, 2020, titled “Recolonise this place”, Heddaya pointed out the fundamental error of using only western artists, western mainstream art forms and a western narrative to depict the Iraq war. His review showed the unwillingness of Western museums to confront colonial wars and the link between colonial wars and the museum whose director was also the director of Blackwater’s private army operating in Iraq. In his 2016 review of the Berlin Biennial, he identified seemingly irreconcilable contradictions between appropriation art and political, appropriationists projects that expose art institutions’ hidden mechanisms, modernism’s ideology and politics, and the concept of progression time leading to a lack of art forms to engage and reveal existing conditions. A better synthesis of appropriation and political art was exhibited in the Prado Foundation’s Venice show in 2017: The boat is sinking, The captain lied.

It is a grave mistake to look to the past to resuscitate previous theoretical and philosophical positions and models to look for insights into existing conditions or to look to Oliver Ressler’s political art practice or political art as Colonialism. The RA shows registering of important concepts, authors, artists, pooling them together, appropriates and reverses their meaning.

In light of Mignolo’s statement we can therefore understand the RA show as a celebration of this event, a celebration of the British Empire and its commonwealth and peoples, with London at the centre of the British Empire and the centre of the art market, advertising, selling and promoting the brand, London. This is borne out by Labaina Hamid’s introduction to the show, comparing experiencing the show to something equivalent to walking through the magnificent city of London, where the art works are so many multiple voices and debates.

Entering the exhibition Walking through

Composition of works in the room. Works

Sequence of rooms

Overall aesthetics

Organising each room around a central work or focal point

Walking from gallery 1 into gallery 2

Reinventing classical sculpture

Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, 1783–1819

Kehinde Wiley “After Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Doctor Samuel Johnson’, 2009

Kerry James Marshall “Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself ” 1776, 2007

William Woollett after Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, published 1 January 1776

Benjamin West

The Death of General James Wolfe (1727–1759), 1779

Robert Houle Lost Tribes, 1990–91

Betye Saar “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break”, 1998. Mixed media including vintage ironing board, flat iron, chain, white bedsheet, wooden clothespins and rope.

Frank Dicksee “Startled”, 1892. Former director of the RA who led a reaction by the RA against the Avant Garde in the late 1930’s, a development shared with the National Socialists in Germany, and just one example of ideas and influences between the UK and Germany at the time which has been suppressed, and echoing the new aesthetic of the Conservative Revolution being assembled throughout the RA exhibition design.

David Martin

Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779

Edward Penny

Lord Clive receiving from the Nawab of B grant of the sum of money for Lord Clive’ the relief of distressed soldiers and their d 1772–73

Oil on canvas, 137.8 x 127.7 cm

Kara Walker Fountain for Tate Modern

Keith Piper “The Coloureds’ Codex, An Overseers’ Guide to Comparative Complexion, 2007

Shahzia Sikander “Promiscuous Intimacies”, 2020

Ellen Gallagher “Whale Falls”, 2017

Announcement released by the Arts Council of England on the 15.2.2024

“Culture is the domain of neocolonialism, “it is the colonized world of the twentieth century”, says De Certeau, since it is here that the multinationals install their empires, in the same way that the European nations launched military occupations of unarmed continents in the nineteenth century.” Maurizio Lazzarato

If we break down the argument into its constituent parts, we find that we have building blocks for Neoliberal policies and right-wing aesthetic.

Promoting the use of the language to radicalise and revolutionise the art of the past, western art history and canon. The use of identity politics, politics of mainstream western epistemology and categories and atomisation of culture and peoples. The promotion of reactionary figurative pictorial language, and the active impoverishing of visual language and concepts, along with the overt destruction of different languages and concepts. Where mainstream western institutions are used to order and give meaning to these fragments and atomisation of peoples and cultures, so enhancing and consolidating both mainstream art and its neocolonial role. Where the use of fiction or narrative, rather than conceptualisation and argument, is used to knit together threads of information. What is it the conservative art institutions want to build? At what other time in recent history have we witnessed the destruction of contemporary art to promote Classicism, to rid art of complexity and the deliberate locating of a visual language for mass communication?

If you ask the obvious question, is it possible to gain insights offered by the show to comprehend today’s conditions, the answer must be no. The next question is why not? Because the show uses familiar Neoliberal strategies of pointing people to the past to show that problems and crimes of the Empire and Colonialism are firmly part of the past, using reductive selected history, blocking off other histories and narratives, and fixing history and its conceptualisation. while creating the same crimes and obscuring crimes and problems taking place today. As we saw in the 2023 Whitechapel gallery show “Life Is More Important Than Art” only artists of a particular culture can picture events and histories of that culture through mainstream art, so the representation is limited and fragmented and we basically do not access actual depictions of current problems and issues.

Neoliberal art doesn’t provide information about the world, but instead blocks off what is happening in the world and obstruct- ing any capacity to articulate and think about those conditions. For instance the instrumentalization of black lives matters blocks off other conditions and colonial crimes today, A clear example is that l came across a video online of an indigenous Native American who was killed in exactly the same way as George Floyd, but didn’t receive media exposure. What l mean by selective history and memory are figures of casualties from the wests colonial wars in recent times which have remained hidden – 150, 000 deaths from austerity measures in the UK, the estimated 100 million indigenous peoples’ deaths since the 1800s, the holocaust blocking off other catastrophies, concentration camps, mass killings in other parts of the world and today, such as the Mau Mau, Guantanamo Bay, use of black sites, 1 million Iraqi deaths during the Iraq war, an estimated 30 million deaths from the West’s wars since the end of World War II.

You just need to think about the deliberate use of confusion, non-linear war and information wars, the inaccessibility to usable information and knowledge to be able to understand what is taking place, as class and culture wars, the delegitimization of different and alternative knowledge as forms of apartheid of who has knowledge and information and who doesn’t.

Shifting the strategy of critiquing colonialism as postcolonialism, to accessing and gaining power and assimilation into West- ern power structures. If we think carefully about the consequences of Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 Documenta, filtering global art and the world through main stream western art, within the context of Germany, whitewashing German history, expanding the global reach of Germany through art, and the deliberate manoeuvring of African artists into the mainstream, then there is only one conclusion, and this is what we see being played out in the RA show.

So different logics are at play, multiple overlapping logics that expand the logic of assimilation, the Commonwealth, Rhodes scholarship, and the British Empire, whose conceptualisation is a crystal-clear embodiment of Mignolo’s 2021 statement, Neo- liberal and right-wing governments conquest of concepts and positions where only dominant narratives is available.

So, this texts purpose is to rebuild concepts and language, which starts through recognising how neoliberal mechanisms func- tion, whether neoliberal institutions or neoliberal art, and specifically neoliberal effects.

Recognising the consequence of not having the available language and concepts to recognise right wing aesthetics, the inability to recognise new forms of colonialism and the inability to register existing forms of empire. The inability to register new forms of slavery, the breakdown in civil rights, widespread censorship, new forms of apartheid, widespread witch hunts and impris- oning of peoples who have different ideas to Neoliberal governments.

Constructing fashion, identity of Power echoed in the RA exhibition design.

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