This resource uses specific work on display in the Artist and Empire exhibition to ask questions around colonialism and power relations, particularly in relation to race and gender.

The role that histories of colonialism and empire-building play in present society are examined by comparing 19th Century artworks ‘collected’ by colonists in the same era, with contemporary artworks. There are a number of hyperlinks included in the resource which lead out into a range of different sources. Follow these links to expand the discussions around the artworks in the exhibition, and to help answer some of the questions posed by the resource.

This resource is also full of questions! Students might respond to these in a number of ways; through group discussion, writing and/or making responses.

Looking Back, Thinking Now I

Looking at works in the Artist and Empire Exhibition by Barby Asante

To look at how POWER has been expressed in the works in Artist and Empire I have chosen two different pieces to look at:

The Secret of England's Greatness for the Artist and Empire Learning Resource

Thomas Jones Barker, The Secret of England's Greatness (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor). Oil on canvas, circa 1863 
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Edo people, Bronze Head of a Queen Mother, E 1902.94 for Artist and Empire Learning Resource

Edo people, Bronze Head of a Queen Mother, E 1902.94. Probably from Benin City, Edo, Nigeria
© Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Thomas Jones Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness

We see in the painting Queen Victoria giving a book to an African diplomat. There are people watching the presentation; her husband Prince Albert, a possible lady in waiting and two other important looking men, who are probably politicians. The book she is presenting is a bible. The painting imagines a scene based on an anecdote where an African Prince once asked ‘What is the secret of England’s Greatness?’ and the Queen is said to have given the Prince a bible as an answer to this question.

We can clearly see the power relations in this image and how the artist has portrayed this, with the queen presented standing in a white gown and special attention made to the way she is lit and in the foreground of the image. The diplomat is well dressed and kneeling before the Queen. The surroundings are grand and the other people in the image are either hidden or not really in focus. The artist possibly created this scene as a way of showing Britain’s moral superiority over its empire.

Edo people, Bronze Head of a Queen Mother

The Bronze Head of a Queen Mother is another Queen piece in the exhibition, and a little closer to my cultural heritage.

This is a sculptural piece by an unknown artist. This is probably a Queen Mother. Idoya head shows the Queen wearing a coral beaded collar and a curved crown called Ukepe Okokho, or ‘chicken’s beak’ in English, to express her distinctive hairstyle. There are many bronzes like this in museums across the world. They are highly valued pieces as they were sacred, made for royal ancestral alters. Many of the pieces like this in European collections would have been looted from the Kingdom of Benin in violent exchanges between the British colonisers and the people of Benin.

The use of brass and bronze in sculpture in the Kingdom of Benin was reserved for royalty. These materials we not susceptible to rust or corrosion and as such were used to symbolise the invincible continuity of the royal linage. A Queen Mother’s role in the royal family is considered important for her spiritual and material role in the successes of her son. One of the most revered is Queen Idia, a 16 century Queen Mother and warrior, credited for her tactical skills in defeating a neighbouring king to expand the kingdom and help bring her son Esigie Oba to rule.

In both these examples objects are used to symbolise power. A bible, to symbolise morality, possibly the law and a connection to a higher power (God) who supports the greatness of empire, and a bronze head depicting the greatness of the female power behind her son the King. Her power is spiritual so also connected to a higher power as well as to material connected to wealth.

My heritage is not from Benin, but from Ghana, which was known as the Gold Coast when it was part of the British Empire.

My father has ancestral connections to the Kings of Ashanti and my sister and I were told we were Ghanaian royalty. This was great, except in the 1970s and 80s it seems that almost every child of West African heritage living in Britain was told a similar story. I think this was a way of giving us a sense of pride in a country where our presence was constantly being questioned.

You can find objects related to the Ashanti in museums across the world, including at the British Museum.

Contemporary examples

I have selected the work of two contemporary artists to think about and question the ways in which the power structures represented in the two selected works can be considered from a present day perspective.

Donald Rodney, Doublethink, 1992, close-up of trophies with text

Donald Rodney, Doublethink, 1992. Trophies with text
Photograph © Jamie Woodley

Mary Sibande, The Reign, 2010. Fibreglass, iron and fabric

Mary Sibande, The Reign 2010
Courtesy the artist

Donald Rodney’s Trophies of Empire

The artists use of the trophies refers to the competition over land and materials from those lands at that time, which were considered to be the winnings of the country that managed to gain power over the locals.

The work also speaks of the supposed sporting prowess of African Caribbean men, which could also be linked to the value of the black male as a slave, as well as making reference to museum collections that hold objects “looted” from various places during the time of the British Empire.

His installation Trophies of Empire (1992) is a collection of cheap sporting trophies with labels that tell “half-truths or [half] lies” displayed in glass cabinets and or shelves.  Made in 1992, the piece was a comment on celebrations of 500 years since Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. It was Columbus’s supposed discovery that escalated the European competition for land and trade that lead to what we know as the British Empire. 

Donald Rodney was an artist whose work explores politics and power. He was born in Birmingham in 1961, 10 years before me. He grew up at a time when there was a wave of migration of people from the former colonies and there was lots of antagonism to the presence of these people in the UK. Growing up in this environment Donald used images from mass media, art and popular culture to explore history, representation, masculinity and racism.

Some questions to consider

  • What objects in modern life symbolise power?
  • How do these contemporary objects represent power?
  • What are the differences or similarities between objects of power from the past and those of today?
  • How does the way that the artist has presented this work speak of the power relations of the past and present?

The two selected pieces from Artist and Empire also speak of the different but similar power roles of two very powerful women with a lot of authority and influence.

Mary Sibande’s The Reign

The life size sculptural work, The Reign, by South African artist Mary Sibande explores race, gender and class.

South Africa was fought over by the Dutch, Portuguese, French and the British. The British took control in 1795 and after many bloody wars the white Afrikaner South Africans (also known as the Boers), who were descendants of Dutch colonisers, took over and instilled heavy racial segregation laws.

Mary was born in Johannesburg in 1982 when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the Apartheid system was still deeply in place. It would take another 12 years before Apartheid was dismantled and supposed equality was inscribed in law. Mary’s mother was a domestic servant and this, along with South Africa’s colonial history, very much informs Mary’s work.

Her pieces are of her alter-ego Sophie who is a domestic servant, and who is physically cast off of Mary’s own body. Sibande explores and challenges power relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa through Sophie’s dream life, where she transforms from servant into Victorian queen, unravelling the complex colonial master/ slave relationship to think about power relations in contemporary South Africa, where although there is a majority black government, the whites still hold institutional and economic power and many blacks are still very poor and women, particularly black women, are often not recognised in society.

In the piece I’ve choosen, Sophie is riding a horse that is positioned as if it going into battle. We have seen many images like this in paintings of men in battle often generals or famous men who have won battles. Mary turns this image upside down by placing Sophie on the horse, a black woman in who is ambiguously either servant or queen. The title of the piece makes reference to the ‘reign’ of a queen and also the ‘reins’ that are used to control a horse when you are riding.

In 2008 I worked with fellow artist Lucy Kimbell and asked the question ‘Who’s in Power?’ to young people from Queens Park School in West London. From the work in the school, Lucy and I developed a hot or not type game called the World Power League to get young people to think about power and who has the power in contemporary society.

Some questions to consider

  • How does the artist explore power and power relationships in her work?
  • Do women have power in society? If they do, is their power that women have equal to men
  • How have the power roles of men and women changed since the time of empire?
  • How about the power relations between different races?
  • What do you think about the ways in which power is being talked about/ used in the world? Are you powerful?