Room Six

Out of Empire

By 1900 the British Empire had created a vast interconnected culture of collecting. Objects from Asia, Oceania, Africa and the Americas were displayed in British and colonial museums and at international exhibitions, influencing the styles and techniques used by modern British painters and sculptors. In cosmopolitan cities such as those in the Indian Raj, art schools established on European principles encouraged a complex identity on the part of artists graduating within the colonial system. While some rejected Western illusionism in favour of indigenous traditions, others such as Rabindranath Tagore regarded art as a universal ideal that transcended divisions of nationhood, ethnicity and religion. 

After the Second World War, in the era of decolonisation, many young artists came from across the Empire to study and work in London. Aubrey Williams and Donald Locke arrived from British Guiana; Ben Enwonwu and Uzo Egonu from Nigeria; Avinash Chandra and Balraj Khanna from India; and Sidney Nolan from Australia. Employing a range of motifs and practices, they each developed a language of expression to evoke memories of the past while allowing for critical comment and introspection. This tendency was reflected in international careers that moved between the artists’ countries of origin, Britain and other locations.

Legacies of Empire

The profile of British artists from the former Empire peaked during the 1960s, encouraged by the Commonwealth Institute and networks such as the Caribbean Artists Movement. In 1965 Avinash Chandra’s Hills of Gold became the first modernist work by an Indian artist to enter the national collection at the Tate Gallery. However, in the years following the breakup of Empire, many Black and Asian artists found their work judged according to preconceived notions of authenticity and difference. A growing sense of marginalisation led to the landmark exhibition The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. This included works by Chandra, Khanna, Williams and Ronald Moody, alongside exhibits by younger artists such as Sonia Boyce. It was during this period that Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire assumed iconic status.

In recent years a post-imperial generation of artists has felt able to engage more directly with the visual culture of Empire. Each piece in this section reprises a theme or type of art presented elsewhere in the exhibition. Ranging from the critical and reflective to the ironic and playful, these works are indicative of the ways in which objects and images continue to speak to us about the histories and legacies of Empire.

In this short film below, contemporary artists the Singh Twins discuss their 2010 work enTWINed, which interprets two history paintings from an Indian perspective.