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Artist and Society

Explore artworks from Tate's collection that respond to their social and political context

Joseph Beuys Lightning with Stag in its Glare 1958–85. Photo © Tate 2016

13 rooms in Artist and Society

Monument for the Living

Marwan Rechmaoui, Monument for the Living  2001–8

This sculpture is a scale model of the Burj El Murr building in Beirut, Lebanon. The tower was owned by members of the el-Murr family, a prominent political clan. Construction began in 1974 but it was left unfinished after the outbreak of civil war. Originally an office block, it was only ever used as a sniper outpost. The tower is too tall to knock down and too dense to implode, and so continues to dominate the skyline. It is now seen as a memorial to the internal conflict that has never really been resolved.

Gallery label, October 2016

© Marwan Rechmaoui

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Composition with Two Ovals

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Composition with Two Ovals  1951

Choucair is one of the few Lebanese artists of her generation devoted to geometric abstraction. Her approach developed in response to two distinct influences: Islamic art and the avant-garde art scene of Paris in the 1940s, where she was a student. Like many of her paintings, it uses the two basic elements of Islamic design – the straight line and the curve – as a starting point to create simple shapes which she places in rhythmic dialogue.

Gallery label, November 2015

© Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

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Spatial Relief (red) REL 036

Hélio Oiticica, Spatial Relief (red) REL 036  1959

Oiticica suspended this work from the ceiling so that viewers would have to walk around it. He wanted us to become active participants in the work. Only by walking around it can you see the difference in colour and shapes on both sides. It is painted in two very similar colours, chosen for their reaction to light. Oiticica was influenced by the ordered abstraction of artists such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, whose work is also on display in this room. But Oiticica introduced elements of movement and change, emphasising the bodily experience of his work.

Gallery label, August 2019

© Projeto Hélio Oiticica

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Untitled

Malangatana Ngwenya, Untitled  1967

This painting depicts the violence and suffering endured by ordinary people in Mozambique during the War of Independence from Portugal (1964–74) and was made while the conflict was still raging. Figures overlap, seemingly merging into one another and collapsing any sense of perspective, a reflection on the importance of community and social relationships, shown here in meltdown. Three years before painting this, the artist had been imprisoned for eighteen months by the Portuguese secret police for his involvement in FRELIMO (the Front for Liberation of Mozambique).

Gallery label, November 2015

© reserved

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Child Minder. Joubert Park, Johannesburg

David Goldblatt, Child Minder. Joubert Park, Johannesburg  1975, printed 2013

© David Goldblatt

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The End of the Twentieth Century

Joseph Beuys, The End of the Twentieth Century  1983–5

A major theme in Beuys's work was renewal. This sculpture developed out of his environmental concerns, particularly a plan to plant 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel, Germany. Next to each newly planted tree would be placed blocks of basalt rock. Here, the basalt itself becomes a symbol of potential growth. A cone has been cut out of each rock, allowing the cavity to be lined with clay and felt. Embedded in dead matter, these materials suggest the possibility of new life emerging at the end of a dark century.

Gallery label, August 2004

© DACS, 2020

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Sabra and Shatila Massacre

Dia al-Azzawi, Sabra and Shatila Massacre  1982–3

This work was made in response to the massacre of civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon in September 1982. Those killed were mostly Palestinian. The violence was carried out by a militia associated with a Christian Lebanese right-wing party. The camps were under the guard of the Israeli Defence Force. Al-Azzawi worked on the drawings over several months, creating no other work. In its subject matter and scale, the work is related to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica 1937, a large painting that brought attention to the violence of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9).

Gallery label, August 2019

© Dia al-Azzawi

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Flag I

Teresa Margolles, Flag I  2009

The fabric of Flag I contains traces of blood, soil and other substances from the sites of murders around the northern border of Mexico, testifying to the thousands of violent deaths associated with the powerful drug cartels that control smuggling routes to the United States. Another version of this work was shown at the Venice Biennial in 2009, where Margolles represented Mexico with an exhibition titled What Else Could We Talk About? As the government failed to intervene in the drug wars, the blood-stained cloth was hung outside the Mexican pavilion as a memorial for citizens that the nation ignored.

Gallery label, November 2015

© reserved

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The British Library

Yinka Shonibare CBE, The British Library  2014

The British Library 2014 is an installation of 6,328 hardback books individually covered in colourful ‘Dutch wax print’ fabric and arranged on rows of shelving. Names are printed in gold leaf on the spines of 2,700 of the books, the majority of which are of first- or second-generation immigrants to Britain, both celebrated and lesser-known, who have made significant contributions to British culture and history. Among names such as Hans Holbein, Zadie Smith, Dame Helen Mirren and Danny Welbeck, the names of those who have opposed immigration also appear, including Nigel Farage and Oswald Mosley. Adjacent to the bookshelves is a study space with tablets, where viewers are able to access the artwork’s website (http://thebritishlibraryinstallation.com), learn more about the people named on the books, and review materials selected by the artist that represent different perspectives on immigration. Visitors are also invited to submit their own stories using the tablets, and a selection of these responses is made available on the website. The books can be installed in purpose-built bookshelves to any configuration, or in existing bookshelves.

© Yinka Shonibare. Co-commissioned by HOUSE 2014 and Brighton Festival. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

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Highlights

Monument for the Living
Marwan Rechmaoui Monument for the Living 2001–8
Composition with Two Ovals
Saloua Raouda Choucair Composition with Two Ovals 1951
Spatial Relief (red) REL 036
Hélio Oiticica Spatial Relief (red) REL 036 1959
Untitled
Malangatana Ngwenya Untitled 1967
Child Minder. Joubert Park, Johannesburg
David Goldblatt Child Minder. Joubert Park, Johannesburg 1975, printed 2013
The End of the Twentieth Century
Joseph Beuys The End of the Twentieth Century 1983–5

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