Artist and empire

This post was written by Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the Art History department at Birkbeck.

In winter next year Tate Britain will host a major exhibition called Artist and Empire. I have been conducting research for the curatorial team at Tate, and on the last day of Birkbeck Arts Week gave a lecture called Curating ‘empire’ at Tate: Dissonance and British Art. I considered some of the major art historical and museological questions that this ambitious exhibition’s premise raises. These include: what chronological parameters might the exhibition best deploy, given the longevity of Britain’s empire? Should the exhibition consider empire’s legacies and thus incorporate the work of contemporary artists? What are the stories of empire that have most preoccupied artists in the colonial period, and do these continue to have relevance today? From whose perspective are they told? What were the effects of what is often called the “centre-periphery” relationship – metropolitan Britain at the powerful centre of a global empire – on the production, reception, and classification of artworks? How might painful and contested histories be dealt with?

I suggested that Artist and Empire provides an opportunity to examine how artists have responded to – and sometimes resisted – imperial themes, and how colonialism and its deep legacies continue to engage artists today.

A podcast of the lecture is now available.

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