Entangled Pasts, 1768-now

Royal Academy of Arts (London), Feb-24/Apr-24

Entangled Pasts, 1768-now is perhaps one of the most powerful and ambitious exhibitions to take place at the RA in decades. The group show, which opened in early February and is now on until late April, features more than 100 historical and contemporary works spanning centuries of history, from the legacies of empire and colonialism to the present moment of resistance and rewriting of narratives.


The exhibition starts with a room dedicated to 18th-century portraits of Black sitters, including one depicting British abolitionist Ignatius Sancho, who was the first person of African descent to vote in a British election. Kerry James Marshall’s 2007 contemporary painting Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776 portrays Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African-American artist whose production remains overlooked. Moorhead lived in Boston in the late 18th century and, according to historians, is the creator of the first portrait of a Black American enslaved woman dated 1773. Here, the exhibition declares its mission to reflect critically upon colonialism and how the RA, an art institution deeply rooted in the British Empire, participated in the complacent silencing of multiple voices.

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin, collection of Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. Photo by Jonty Wilde

Themes of migration and displacement permeate the show. Hew Locke’s large-scale installation Armada (2017-2019), which gathers forty-five miniature boats, takes centre stage while being accompanied by a series of paintings that traces European expeditions and maritime histories. Subsequent rooms explore notions of landscape, architecture, and beauty, as well as more intimate topics of family and the construction of identity. The juxtaposition between Yinka Shonibare’s staircase in the sculpture Woman Moving Up (2023) and the one present in the painting The Family of Sir William Young (1767-1769) by German neoclassical artist Johann Zoffany reveals the complex layers of colonial domination and control.


Isaac Julien’s film installation Lessons of the Hour (2019) honors the legacy of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who became one of the most important campaigners against slavery in the 19th century in the US. It offers a meditative experience, delving further into the abolitionist’s life and blurring the conditions between time, fiction, and reality. Alongside the video piece, 19th-century sculptures by British academician John Bell and American sculptor Hiram Powers investigate the meanings behind the representation of female enslaved bodies.

Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and National Museums, Liverpool © Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Stuart Whipps

In the final galleries, works by renowned contemporary British artists gain the spotlight. While Frank Bowling’s expressionist abstraction in Middle Passage (1974) produces a poetic reading of geographical landscapes, John Akomfrah’s narrative grandiosity in Vertigo Sea (2015) transports the visitors to the sea, where beings are in constant dispute. Animals threatened with extinction, individuals held in slavery, and thousands of migrants and refugees fighting for their own lives, historically oppressed by white and imperialist structures.

Oil on canvas. 78.7 x 63.8 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo © Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

There is much to see – and feel – at Entangled Pasts, 1768-now. And yet, although RA’s critique of empire looks like an impactful, well-orchestrated gesture, a lot of work still has to be done by cultural institutions, museums, and collections in terms of reframing and rebuilding these ‘entangled pasts’. In the meantime, the exhibition marks an significant and necessary step towards the future.

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