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Entangled Pasts Review, Royal Academy of Arts

February 3 - April 28

Entangled Pasts 1728-now Review

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now, Art, Colonialism and Change is an exhibition running at the Royal Academy of Arts from 3 February to 28 April 2024.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now, Art, Colonialism and Change

The Royal Academy is holding a major exhibition to examine the way that art has helped develop the narrative of colonialism and slavery. Entangled Pasts collates more than 100 works from artists contemporary and classic including J.M.W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Ellen Gallagher and Yinka Shonibare to not only examine the past but also point towards the future.

The exhibition will create connections between artists spanning more than 250 years, while questioning power and representation. Major works include Lubaina Himid’s installation Naming the Money and Hew Locke’s Armada (see above). Other works are by Shahzia Sikander, El Anatsui, Betye Saar, Kerry James Marshall, Mohini Chandra and Kara Walker.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–now Review

The first thing that strikes you about this important and challenging exhibition at the Royal Academy is the magnificent statue by Tavares Strachan in its courtyard. ‘The First Supper’ (main image) has twelve people of African descent from artists to politicians sitting as if at The Last Supper. It sets the tone for what lies inside the galleries of the Royal Academy – a reinterpretation of how Black people have been depicted – or not – throughout the centuries in art.

Barbara Walker's Vanishing Point 18
Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point 18

The RA has selected 1768 as the starting point for the exhibition as this was the year that the organisation was founded.

The exhibition begins by showing the way Black people have been depicted in art. An early portrait is of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough. Sancho was the first person of African origin to vote in a UK election. Often the Black figure is situated in the background of the painting, clearly a subordinate figure. At other times the absence of Black figures in art is emphasised, such as in Barbara Walker’s ‘Vanishing Point 18’, which re-situates Titan’s Diana and Actaeon to white out the original figures and bring in a black figure instead. In this way the artist emphasises the lack of “Black representation in our national archives.”

Nor is the RA itself sparred such critique. ‘Startled’ by Frank Dicksee is placed beside a painting of the all-white, all-male RA Selection and Hanging Committee from 1938 and 1939. ‘Startled’ depicts an idealised Aryanised view of beauty. Dicksee who was President of the RA from 1924 to 1928, stated that “our ideal of beauty must be the white man’s”.

Entangled Pasts 1728-now Review
Betye Saar, I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break

The exhibition is multi-media, including a film depicting the life of African American abolitionist Isaac Julien and a wonderful installation by Betye Saar entitled ‘I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break’ which involves an ironing board depicting the diagram of the slave ship Brookes with an iron chained to it. In the background is a white sheet with KKK embroidered on it, hanging out to dry. The chained iron represents the way that slaves were dehumanised.

The exhibition ends with a look at the present times.

Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Justice for All’ reimagines Justice holding a sword and scales but wearing a colourful dress and with her head turned into the Globe. It is a poignant conclusion to a quite remarkable, challenging and thought provoking exhibition by the RA.

Yinka Shonibare's Justice for All
Yinka Shonibare’s Justice for All

When Is the Exhibition?

3 February to 28 April, 2024. 10am to 6pm (until 9pm Fridays, closed Mondays).

Where Is It?

Main Galleries | Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts. For more information, click here.

How Much Does It Cost?


All images taken by Mark Bibby Jackson with permission from the Royal Academy.



Royal Academy of Arts
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