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I decided not to read any reviews of the Royal Academy’s show, Entangled Pasts, 1769-now: Art, Colonialism and Change (until 28 April), before I went to see it. I wanted to approach the exhibition with an open mind, and so on a rainy February afternoon, I set off for Green Park not knowing what to expect.

In the courtyard, I was greeted by Tavares Strachan’s monumental sculpture, The First Supper (2023). It is in conversation or confrontation with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural painting, The Last Supper (around 1495-98). In Strachan’s sculpture, the heroes of Africa and the African diaspora dine at a sumptuously laid table. Christ has been replaced by Emperor Haile Selassie in full military dress. I also recognised Marcus Garvey, Sojourner Truth and Shirley Chisholm.

The work is made of bronze and most of the piece is coated in a colour Strachan calls “galaxy black”. Some figures are embellished with gold, while others are coated entirely in gold. The size of the work, the contrast between the black and the gold, and the dramatic poses of many of the figures, make the piece striking. Strachan’s work is not subtle, but as a Black artist, presenting a work in a space that has historically been unwelcoming to people of colour, perhaps subtlety was not appropriate.

When I arrived, a small crowd was gathered round the sculpture. People took selfies and photographs but few got up close. They stood at a respectful distance, perhaps because of the religious undertones of the work. In the background, a statue of Joshua Reynolds stood on a plinth with his head turned from the scene below him. Reynolds’s gaze might be averted in shock or horror or guilt. Whether by accident or design, Strachan’s figures are of a similar shade of black to the Reynolds statue. Again, the two works seem to be in conversation or confrontation. I hastened inside to see what else the exhibition had in store.

According to the audioguide, the show was conceived in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, but did not open until February 2024. The long gestation period works to the exhibition’s favour. Entangled Pasts seems more considered than those initial knee-jerk responses to Floyd’s murder. Many responses were well meant but, as time has shown, they were mostly ineffective.

So, what’s the show all about? I would summarise it like this. The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) was founded in December 1768 by King George III. In 1768, the British Empire, the transatlantic slave trade and white supremacist ideas were all expanding. This context influenced the work that academicians produced. Entangled Pasts explicitly addresses the RA’s role as an image maker for Empire as well as bringing in contemporary artists of colour, whose work interrogates European imperial systems and hierarchies.

What does this all mean? Well, let’s start with the opening room of the exhibition. There is a portrait of the famous Black abolitionist Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough. There is a Joshua Reynolds portrait of a Black man who may or may not be Francis Barber (Samuel Johnson’s heir.) And then there is Kerry James Marshall’s imagined portrait of Scipio Moorehead, an enslaved artist who worked in Boston in the late 18th century. Gainsborough, Reynolds and Moorehead were all artists working in a similar time period but only the works of the first two survive. Throughout the exhibition, contemporary artists of colour, like Marshall, stand in for the erased artists and voices of the past.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, (around 1770)

The juxtaposition works. It gives each room a tension that would be lacking if the exhibition was arranged purely chronologically. The works produced by academicians of the past were mostly the art of the establishment. There are a lot of portraits of rich white people dressed in sumptuous clothing.

It’s nothing new, nothing you haven’t seen on the set of a period drama. But then place an 18th-century portrait of Prince George, next to a 21st-century portrait by Kehinde Wiley and suddenly, there’s a frisson in the air. The stances of the principal subjects are similar, chest out, gaze strong, but one subject is Black and one subject is white. Wiley is subverting the traditions of European portraiture, challenging who gets to be portrayed as noble and virtuous.

Is the exhibition radical? Yes and no. Objectively, there’s nothing radical about saying that British artists living in the age of empire produced work that erased the horrors of slavery and imperial expansion—it’s just stating the obvious. However, stating the obvious is something that the RA has not done for most of its existence, so Entangled Pasts is a radical exhibition for the RA.

Installation view showing Yinka Shonibare’s Woman Moving Up (2023)

Towards the end of the exhibition, the dialogue between past and present artists petered out, and most of the works shown were contemporary. In quick succession, there were works by Frank Bowling, El Anatsui, Lubaina Himid and Yinka Shonibare. It almost began to feel like a group show.

Which led me to wonder why prominent artists like Yinka Shonibare are often only seen in group exhibitions at British institutions? Most of the contemporary artists featured in Entangled Pasts have been working long enough to have retrospectives that look at their work in a more in-depth fashion. Maybe that’s the next step for the RA.

As I left the show, I was reminded of the Igbo proverb: “Morning is when you wake up.” The RA seems to have woken up to its responsibility of presenting an honest view of its role in Britain’s imperial past. But as we have seen in the past four years, institutions that seemed to have woken up, can very quickly go back to sleep. So, to the curators of Entangled Past: well done and stay woke!

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