The contraction of our empire on one hand, and our incomes on the other, have reduced very considerably our knowledge — as a nation — of the world. Throughout the s and 60s, images of empire came to be regarded with something between a deep ambivalence and a profound distaste: paintings with Indian, African or Caribbean imperial themes seemed at best fuddy-duddy and passe, at worst mawkishly jingoistic.
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Most were simply taken off the walls and put into storage. It was sent on a long loan to a regimental museum in Somerset. This month, The Remnants of an Army returned to Tate for the first time in half a century. Astonishingly, it is the first major show on British soil to attempt to give a sample of the art of the British empire since that empire imploded in the decade after It is not hard to see why it has taken so long for an exhibition like this to be mounted.
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On the one hand, there is a real danger of Michael Gove-ish bouts of imperial nostalgia. After all, it is only 14 years since the undead cadaver of western colonialism emerged shuddering from its shallow grave, with British troops once again being sent to spill their blood, and that of others, in Kandahar, Baghdad and Basra, cheered on in the press by neocon court historians such as Bernard Lewis and — albeit more ambiguously — Niall Ferguson.
To this day, it is still possible to find historian Andrew Roberts telling the readers of the Daily Mail how lucky Indians were to have been colonised by the British. On the other hand, there is the opposite, liberal, tendency to recoil from all memory of empire and to simply ignore and forget it. The result of this is wilful obliviousness in Britain about the darker side of its imperial past.
Locally, it has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance. Descendants of the victims of past injustice are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects, safely insulated at home from any exposure to the violent details of conquest and expropriation. Nor is this lack of interest in the empire a new phenomenon.
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The historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay complained of this habit in his essay on Lord Clive. It [still] informs the scepticism and amnesia that has led to empire being scarcely visible within public art collections.
Today it is almost impossible to find major collections in Britain that illustrate the British historical movement that, arguably, more than any other, swayed the destinies of the modern world. Instead, the greatest collection of paintings of the Raj is to be found not in London but in the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.
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The collection is, however, in a sorry state. Hungry white ants have been allowed to burrow happily both into canvases and frames; bat colonies have been tolerated behind portraits of walrus-like viceroys with fantastic topiaries of facial hair. A huge Warren Hastings has been ripped from top to bottom. Worst of all is the effect of the hundreds of dive-bombing pigeons that have been allowed to set up home in the dome.
But as Europe once again finds itself caught up in conflicts in its former colonies, this is simply not good enough. Just as Germans have not shied away from the Holocaust and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, so the British need to know about their empire, to face up to what the country did, and the reasons why so many people, in so many different parts of the world, actively resent, dislike and distrust them.
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While there are things the imperial British did that can be celebrated, these have to be weighed against a long succession of what today would be regarded as war crimes, stretching from Virginia to New Zealand. We must never be allowed to forget that whatever its achievements, the British empire, like every empire before or since, was both gained and maintained by military might, and built over the graves of those it conquered and colonised.
Meanwhile, under mostly British supervision, slave traders forcibly abducted 15 million Africans and killed as many more. It was literally murder … I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful … Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference. Yet most people in the UK remain completely unaware of these aspects of their imperial history, and many leave school without touching upon it at any point in their formal education.
In our school textbooks, it is only the Germans who imagine racial hierarchies and commit racially inspired genocides. For all these reasons, Artist and Empire really matters. As Gilroy writes in the catalogue, the British empire:. The aftershocks from both the administration and the undoing of that unique, planetary enterprise are still reverberating.
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Checkout Your Cart Price. Description Details Customer Reviews Discusses the production and circulation of animal narratives in colonial India in order to investigate the constructs of animals played into a variety of forms of otheringthat took placein England during its imperial venture. Review This Product No reviews yet - be the first to create one!
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