Leeds art collection was initially built on the spoils of slavery and exploitation. In this ground-breaking show, curator Laura Claveria sets out to ask some hard questions and to hear some difficult answers about how those communities and cultures, who are so essential to Leeds’ success, are represented and interpreted.
Comprising around one hundred works from the 17th Century to the present day, some of which are truly remarkable, the exhibition broadly follows two lines of investigation: how BAME communities have been represented in art over the last 400 years and the ways in which the collection has been (mis)interpreted through the ages. As a meditation on race, culture, stereotypes and power relations, the show succeeds in uprooting some deeply engrained prejudices – not just in society but in art itself.
The first room is titled ‘The Elephant Tiger in the Room’, where silence, we are told, is a form of violence, and so it is that the first room confronts our collective silence about the misrepresentation of race in the history of art. This is best exemplified by Francesco Solimena’s Africa (1731-1732), depicting the continent as a single individual woman: one interpretation might hold this woman to be strong and independent as she holds back both beast and child flailing around her; another, however, might notice the chunky, masculine appearance of her muscles, the hardness of her features compared to the white figures around her, the aching void of a dark sky behind, all as an indication that Africa is a wild, untamed, dark, uncivilised land. Curators have traditionally opted for the former interpretation, whereas this curator here has opted for the latter. And that is the crux of the entire show.
Each room thereafter has a theme. ‘The Male Gaze’ displays what we politely call ‘nudes’ and is a revelation of how grotesque male depictions of both race and women have been throughout the ages. In a conciliatory gesture to the communities of Leeds, whom the curator painstakingly consulted along the way, the pictures here are concealed behind a net curtain. It is worth stepping beyond the curtain if only to see Lesley Sanderson’s masterful Negative (1988). ‘Unequal Power Relations’ features a mischievous Hogarth in which the servants – the only black figures in the pictures, of course – look upon the scene of debauched excess with the knowing, self-assured smirk that Hogarth hopes to elicit from us.
One of the crowning achievements of this show is the way in which it highlights the palpable absurdity of colonialism. There are depictions of North African and Middle Eastern ‘gentlemen of leisure’ – wearing, of course, a trademark fez – who play cards in the street, portrayed by artists without any tangible sense of culture, climate or social norms of the people they are representing. Or Sir Frank Brangwyn’s preposterous The Rajah’s Birthday (1908), where the people of India – jubilant, engaged, vibrant – are depicted with features that one might better associate with Africa, as if – in the artist’s view – all Other people are much of an Otherness.
Of course, it is vile and ridiculous, but what is more surprising is that this show feels like the first of its kind to re-present and reinterpret these works as what they are: at best, culturally insensitive, at worst racist. It takes reams of wall text – some from the curator, some quotes contributed by community figures – to motivate the re-interpretation, which can become tiresome, but that only reflects the Big Idea: that it is tiresome explaining to white people why their views of the global majority have been so mired in error. It all ends, however, on a bristling note of hope with the Conversation Table, where visitors can contribute to the wall labels, and with Phil Sayer’s Rites of Passage (1989) which celebrates resistance and protest as cornerstones of progress for civil rights in the 20th Century.
Sometimes it is tough viewing and even tougher thinking, but, as Anselm Kiefer said, ‘Art is not entertainment. It is difficult’. ‘Shifting Perspectives’ is all the right kinds of difficulties in a world where George Floyd’s death and BLM inspired an industrial city in the north of England to be the first to stand up and be counted. Written by Daniel Barnes