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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

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Igor Grubic

Igor Grubic

Igor Grubić’s work often explores themes of intolerance in society

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Igor Grubić East Side Story 2006–8 (detail) © Igor Grubić


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
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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Highlights in Artist and Society

Monument for the Living

Marwan Rechmaoui
Monument for the Living

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.

Display caption, 2016

Composition with Two Ovals

Saloua Raouda Choucair
Composition with Two Ovals

Composition with Two Ovals 1951 is an abstract painting on a large, horizontally orientated rectangular canvas. It is a prime example of Choucair’s abstract paintings from this period in its use of primary colours and a system of bold geometric forms. Interlocking abstract volumes are characteristic of the artist’s work in general, and particularly define the period she spent living in Paris in the late 1940s, when she was exposed to abstraction in painting through the Atelier de l’Art Abstrait and furthered her study of geometric motifs and architectural compositions. Although this painting exemplifies Choucair’s characteristic curved, closed forms, geometry of line, repetition of modules and formally tight compositions, it can also be seen as a pivotal departure from the rest of her works in its large size, elongated shape and distinctive colour palette of red, green, yellow, black and white. At the same time, the work embodies the complexity and formal exploration that marks Choucair’s production as a whole and which is also found in her Composition in Blue Module 1947–51 (Tate T13308).

Despite the title, in Composition with Two Ovals the ovoid forms seem to disappear, dominated by the emergence of squares, polygons and lines. Almost as if colliding with each other, the two abstracted ovals are depicted in a multiplicity of diverse forms and colours. Their autonomous movements articulate an expression of motion, appearing to revolve around a dark void at the centre of the composition. This sense of movement is offset by a system of formal unity and structural balance, creating a rhythm and harmony within the painting as a whole.

Choucair began working in her native Lebanon in the 1940s, a lone female voice in Beirut’s art scene at the time. Her early work was informed by her interest in and understanding of Islamic forms in art and architecture. Working across painting and sculpture, she combined this exploration of abstract forms with an understanding of traditional Sufi philosophy and literature. Throughout her career, she has experimented with materials and diverse means of production, exploring both figuration and abstraction, as well as seriality and dynamism within her multi-part sculptures (see, for example, Infinite Structure 1963–5, Tate T13262). Since the 1960s she has also produced more functional sculptural pieces such as fountains and benches, some of which have become part of Beirut’s urban landscape.

Further reading
Joseph Tarrab (ed.), Saloua Raouda Choucair: Her Life and Art, Beirut 2002.
Jessica Morgan (ed.), Saloua Raouda Choucair, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2013.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
July 2013

Summary, 2016

Spatial Relief (red) REL 036

Hélio Oiticica
Spatial Relief (red) REL 036

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.

Display caption, 2019


Malangatana Ngwenya

Untitled 1967 is a large oil painting on hardboard. The entire picture plane is covered with densely packed writhing figures which are outlined in black and painted in bright shades of orange, yellow, blue and red. The figures overlap, seemingly merging into one another and collapsing any sense of perspective or hierarchy. White gnashing teeth, claw-like hands and the wide eyes of humans and animals dominate the scene. Like most of Malangatana’s paintings from this period, the work depicts the concerns and struggles of ordinary people and the violence and barbarities endured while his native Mozambique struggled for independence from Portugal.

Malangatana was a prominent figure in Mozambique and also played an important role in imagining a broader Africanist aesthetic in Europe and America. His work was intimately connected with his politics and reflects the socio-political conditions of Mozambique, whether during the struggle for independence (gained in 1975) or later during the civil war (1977–92). By the mid-1960s Malangatana, who began exhibiting in the late 1950s, had already established his signature style, evident in Untitled.

Malangatana joined the Mozambique liberation movement FRELIMO in 1964. The same year he was detained by the Portuguese secret police for his involvement with FRELIMO and imprisoned for eighteen months. The period between his release and 1971, when he was awarded a grant from the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation to study printmaking and ceramics in Portugal, was an important one for his art. During this time he continued to depict the tragic consequences of war – violence, hunger and death – and was prolific in his output, holding numerous exhibitions in Mozambique and accepting commissions to paint large-scale murals. After independence, Malangatana became more active politically and his artistic production declined between 1974 and 1978. It was only after the civil war ended in 1992 that he introduced landscape images into his work and began to work with a cooler palette.

Further reading
Júlio Navarro (ed.), Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, Dar es Salaam 2003.
Joe Pollitt, ‘Malangatana Ngwenya Obituary’, Guardian, 17 January 2011,, accessed 8 May 2016.

Kerryn Greenberg
August 2013

Summary, 2016

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

The End of the Twentieth Century is a large installation consisting of thirty-one rough, bulky basalt rocks, which are strewn across the floor in a seemingly random manner. The stones are all a muted beige colour, mottled with patches of grey. Each rock measures between one and two and a half metres in length and has a cone-shaped hole drilled into the upper side of one of its ends. These cone-shaped cavities have been smoothed down and lined with clay and felt, and the pieces of basalt that were removed from the stones have been polished before being placed back into their holes. The rocks lie in loose, haphazard clusters that resemble piles of debris. However, they are broadly arranged in two groups, leaving a long gap down the centre so that viewers can walk among them.

This installation was made by the German artist Joseph Beuys in 1985. It is the third in a series of works that all have the same title and were produced in roughly the same way. The first of these, which comprises twenty-one stones, was conceived in 1983 for the exhibition Tending Towards the Total Work of Art at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf after its curator, Harald Szeeman (1933–2005), asked Beuys to make a new work for the show. While producing this first version of the work, Beuys also prepared another, which includes forty-four stones. The Tate installation is the final large-scale version of this work that Beuys oversaw. The artist was involved in selecting and preparing its stones in 1985, but he died in January 1986, before the work was installed.

Although Beuys made some initial sketches that illustrate possible ways of arranging the stones, there are no fixed rules for installing The End of the Twentieth Century. This poses a challenge for curators, who must decide how to display the installation and whether to base their decision on previous displays of other versions that the artist helped to install. After Tate purchased this work in 1991, Tate curator Sean Rainbird and Beuys’s former Munich gallerist Bernd Klüser devised a composition for displaying the piece that drew on previous arrangements and the artist’s drawings. The work was first shown according to their plans at the Tate Gallery in 1992 and, aside from very minor alterations, it has been displayed in the same way since.

The title of this installation makes reference to what was at the time the impending end of the twentieth century, and the art historian Mark Rosenthal has suggested that the work expresses a pessimistic view of this by evoking ‘the haphazard aftermath of a calamity’ (Mark Rosenthal, ‘Joseph Beuys: Staging Sculpture’, in Menil Collection 2005, p.84). Furthermore, this work could be seen as a reflection on the physical effects of the passage of time: clay, felt and basalt are materials that were used frequently by Beuys, who often stated that he was interested in basalt’s status as a volcanic rock, and the art historian Victoria Walters has argued that he associated it with ‘a very long-term, geological notion of time’ (Victoria Walters, Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d, Zürich 2012, p.248). In 1984 Beuys claimed that he wanted this installation to allegorise a relationship between the past and the near future to which its title refers:

This is the end of the twentieth century. This is the old world, on which I press the stamp of the new world. Take a look at the plugs, they look like plants coming from the stone age. I took great pains to drill them out of the basalt in a funnel shape and then set them back into the hollows using felt and clay so they cannot do each other harm, and can keep warm. It is something agile, eruptive, lively in this solidified mass – in the same way that the basalt itself was once pressed out of the earth’s interior.
(Quoted in Willisch and Heimberg 2007, p.7.)

Beuys’s suggestion that this installation produces a harmonious relationship between ancient, natural forces and the ‘new world’ may have been linked with his commitment to the ecological movement in this period, which led him to found the German Green Party in 1980. The End of the Twentieth Century is also directly connected with another of his major late works, 7000 Oaks: city forestation instead of city administration 1982, which was produced by Beuys for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. To make this work, Beuys placed seven thousand stones on the square in front of the Museum Fridericianum, Documenta 7’s central exhibition space. Over the next five years the rocks were gradually removed and each was placed next to a newly-planted oak tree elsewhere in Kassel. In 1983 forty-four of the stones were moved from the square to Düsseldorf for the 1983 Galerie Schema installation of The End of the Twentieth Century, before being replaced. Beuys stated that he wanted 7000 Oaks: city forestation instead of city administration ‘to initiate the gradual “straightening process”, the “enlivening process” of nature as well as of the social–ecological, that is, social organism’ (quoted in Eckart Förster, ‘“Gentleness, Indirectness, Imperceptibility, and often ‘Anti-Technics’ are my choices”: on Joseph Beuys’ The End of the 20th Century’, in Menil Collection 2007, pp.62–3.)

Further reading
Joseph Beuys: actions, vitrines, environments, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2005, pp.84, 136–49.
Susanne Willisch and Bruno Heimberg (eds.), Joseph Beuys – Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts / The End of the Twentieth Century, Munich 2007.
The End of the Twentieth Century: The Best is Yet To Come: A Dialogue with the Marx Collection, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2013, pp.11–21.

Lucy Watling
January 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

Summary, 2015

Sabra and Shatila Massacre

Dia al-Azzawi
Sabra and Shatila Massacre

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).

Display caption, 2019

Flag I

Teresa Margolles
Flag I

Flag I 2009 is comprised of a piece of fabric hanging from a flag pole. Having been used to clean the sites of violent deaths in Mexico, the fabric is soiled with blood, earth and other substances. It can be shown in the open air like an ordinary national or institutional flag. Margolles exhibited a version of the work at the Venice Biennale in 2009 as part of her exhibition in the Mexican pavilion, What Else Could We Talk About?. Flag I was included in the exhibition No Lone Zone at Tate Modern in London in 2012. Having based her early work on her experiences working in a morgue, Margolles has subsequently chosen to work directly on the streets of Mexico at scenes of recent conflict, particularly in Ciudad Juárez and other cities in northern Mexico whose proximity to the United States has made them sites for drug trafficking and the violence associated with it.

Born in Culiacán in the north-western state of Sinaloa in Mexico, Margolles studied forensic medicine, becoming familiar with working with dead bodies and becoming aware of the crime and violence directly related to the drug trade in Mexico. Margolles entered the artistic world through her involvement with SEMEFO, an underground group that appropriated their name from the acronym of the Servicio Médico Forense, a forensic institute in Mexico that also directs the morgues. SEMEFO members were part of the alternative music scene and were often invited to take part in artistic events. Margolles left SEMEFO in the late 1990s and started to work on her own as an artist. Over the years her practice has become increasingly minimalist while maintaining a focus on the subjects of death, violence and exclusion. Margolles’s work often examines the politics of the dead body, particularly the way bodies condemned to oblivion through violence caused by poverty and social exclusion can return to disrupt the political space. Although rooted in a specific context, her work speaks to other audiences through its presentation – rather than representation – of the aftermath of violence.

Margolles has worked on many occasions with bodily fluids. Vaporización 2001, for instance, consists of a series of humidifiers – of the kind used in museums or archives – which expel a delicate column of mist. The water in the humidifiers comes from the cleaning of corpses in Mexican morgues so that the viewer is confronted with a visual image of death which in turn is inscribed upon his or her body. For her participation in the Havana Biennial in 2000, Margolles smuggled human fat to Cuba and painted an outdoor wall with it. A similar strategy was used in Margolles’s What Else Could We Talk About? in Venice in 2009, where the floor of the Palazzo Rota-Ivancich was mopped continuously by paid workers with a fluid made of water and blood from murder sites in Mexico. In this work, the site of the violent act was transferred metaphorically to the exhibition site, and the viewers were obliged to walk on the remnants of the killings. Similarly, 37 Bodies 2007 (Tate L03369) memorialises Mexican murder victims with short pieces of surgical thread (used to sew up bodies after autopsy) knotted together to form a single line across the exhibition space, claiming visibility for the no longer visible.

Further reading
Taiyana Pimentel, Elmer Mendoza, Teresa Margolles and Cuauhtémoc Medina (eds.), What Else Could We Talk About?, exhibition catalogue, Mexican Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice 2008.
Alpha Escobedo, Leobardo Alvarado, Rein Wolfs and Letizia Ragaglia, Frontera, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Friedricianum, Kassel, and Museion, Cologne 2011.

José Roca
October 2012

Summary, 2016

The British Library

Yinka Shonibare CBE
The British Library

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 (, 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.

While The British Library is a celebration of the ongoing contributions made by immigrants to Britain, it also acknowledges dissent, by including those who have railed against immigration. The work is intended to provoke discussion, debate and reflection on all aspects of British culture, and considers notions of territory and place, cultural identity, displacement and refuge. The space within the installation facilitates this aspect of the work, providing an area for debate. The artist outlined the discursive and participatory nature of the project: ‘The British Library is an exploration of the diversity of British identity through a conceptually poetic lens. I look forward to the public engagement with the work.’ (Mark Brown, ‘Yinka Shonibare's tribute to UK diversity acquired by Tate’, Guardian, 8 April 2019,, accessed 11 April 2019.)

The artist also made clear the work’s relevance to contemporary debates, including those concerning ‘the impact of the refugee crisis and conversations about freedom of movement in the European Union’ (Yinka Shonibare CBE, The British Library,, accessed 11 April 2019). The sheer number of names, each with their own unique personal and family history, underlines the multiplicity of reasons behind immigration, stressing the impact of global conflicts and economic factors on an individual level. The library format of the work also addresses how knowledge is generated, stored and disseminated, questions with particular relevance in a digital age.

Shonibare has become known for his work incorporating ‘Dutch wax print’ fabrics across a range of different media (see, for example, the sculpture The Swing [after Fragonard] 2001, Tate T07952). The fabric is sold widely across Africa and in markets elsewhere which cater to the African diaspora, but was originally produced in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. Based on traditional wax-resist fabrics made in Indonesia, nineteenth-century Dutch merchants originally saw an opportunity to mechanise its production for export to the Dutch East Indies. By the 1930s there was a booming trade in West and Central Africa for the ‘wax hollandais’, with designs being adapted to local tastes. Within a short period the imported product became a part of African cultural heritage, with unique designs being commissioned for family celebrations and more public commemorations. By incorporating this fabric into his work, Shonibare highlights the contradictions of colonisation and histories of cultural hybridity, while bringing to the fore questions of cultural appropriation, identity and nationalism.

The British Library was originally co-commissioned in 2014 by HOUSE 2014 and Brighton Festival for the Old Reference Library at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The installation has since been presented at Museu Afro Brasil, São Paulo and Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2016, and was shown as part of the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

Further reading
Yinka Shonibare MBE, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia 2008.
Rachel Kent, Yinka Shonibare MBE, London 2013.
Yinka Shonibare CBE, The British Library,, accessed 11 April 2019.

Aïcha Mehrez
June 2017

Summary, 2019

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