The resource links this work from the 18 Century with two contemporary works, which deal with these same themes and ask questions around how different histories of empire still affect society today.

Use the resource to think about how we might research artworks or other cultural objects, and what we can find out about society, history and ourselves through looking and thinking with images. The resource features a number of hyperlinks, which lead out into a range of different sources; from dictionary definitions to historical articles, images and academic essays. There are also videos embedded in the resource itself. Follow these links and watch these videos to help expand the discussions around the artworks and the Artist and Empire 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 II

Looking at works in the Artist and Empire exhibition by Teresa Cisneros

The work on display in the Artist and Empire exhibition that I have chosen to look at is:

Agostino Brunias, ‘Dancing Scene in the West Indies’ 1764–96
Agostino Brunias
Dancing Scene in the West Indies 1764–96

In this painting we see a group of mostly women, with a few men and a child in what appears to be some sort of dance festivity.

The central figure is dressed in white with a corset and has her hands in the air showing she is enjoying the dance. She is barefooted and is surrounded by several female figures of darker skin tone that we could presume are slaves, as they are not dressed like her. Some women are topless. There are two other women dressed similarly to the central figure. They are free Creole women next to what looks like a big house surrounded by land and out houses in the distance.

The piece highlights the social status that existed amongst the different groups of people based on colour and mixing.

Some questions to consider

  • What was Brunrias intending to depict through this work?
  • Why did he focus on women? Why not powerful men of Creole heritage?
  • Were the Creole women the wives of white British men?
  • Did the women hold more power and position in this society as Creole women?

The artist Agostino Brunrias (1730–1796) was born in Italy and lived in London and in the West Indies. Brunrias painted in a style termed ‘verité ethnographique’ which depicts the real world as seen through painting.

He was often commissioned by the wealthy English elite to capture scenes of local life. The locals were made up of white British plantation owners, Africans (slaves), Taino (indigenous people), mulatto (English and African) and creole (European, African and Taino).

Some questions to consider

  • Why was it important to paint women in different shades of brown, what did the artist want to convey?
  • In today’s society we can still encounter judgement based on skin tone, which have a legacy based on the “one drop rule” or the “brown paper bag test”.  Both concepts create outsider/insider positions based on a person’s skin tone or heritage. How can we relate to this type of imagery and message in today’s society?
  • Can you think of an example where a person is depicted in a certain way in order to create a specific sentimentality or narrative? For instance how does the media or television represent certain types of people to create a background narrative?
  • Do you think Brunias was looking at these women from a superior perspective, or was trying to show the women as being powerful?
  • What about the ceremony or dance the women are engaged in:  Why are they in such a state of movement?
  • What rituals do you take part in? These could be everyday or religious.

Perhaps the dancing women are commemorating an ancestor, or are they engaging in jouvert (pre-carnival ritual signalling the start of carnival/ mardi gras) pre-Lent celebrations? These types of celebration continue to this day in countries with links to histories of African enslavement, especially in the Caribbean, Latin and Central Americas, the USA and the UK.

Contemporary examples

To explore this further I want to look at the work of artists Adriana Varejao and Ebony G. Paterson whose practices explore themes that can be found in Brunrias paintings.

Adriana Varejao, Polvo Paintings, Oil on canvas, 3 canvases, 2013

Adriana Varejao, Polvo Paintings (series). Oil on canvas, 3 canvases, 2013
Photo © Vincente de Mello

Ebony G. Patterson, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories

Ebony G. Patterson, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories
Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo © Monique Gilpin and Philip Rhoden

Adriana Varejao’s Polvo

The work of Brazilian born artist Adriana Varejao explores questions about race, colonial history and hierarchies of skin colour within the context of Brazilian society.

Adriana Varejao’s triptych self-portrait paintings in the Polvo series depict her in three skin tones/colours. She also shows the colour wheel indicating where the skin tone would fit within this spectrum of colours. This work can connect historically with the hierarchies depicted in Brunrias’s painting.

The work is called Polvo, a reference to octopus ink which is made from melanin and is used to darken the skin. In some cultures, creams are sold to lighten the skin.

Some questions to consider

  • Why would Varejao paint this in 2015?
  • Does a person’s skin tone have a direct relationship to the position they hold in society?
  • Does this sort of casting of people in relation to skin tone and power exist in Brazil or in Britain today?

Ebony G. Patterson, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories

Ebony G. Paterson is a Jamaican artist who explores histories, culture and ritual in communities especially those of Caribbean heritage.

In the artwork Invisible Presence: Bling Memories Ebony G Patterson staged a performance within carnival in Kingston, Jamaica. In the image you can see different people dressed up, carrying colourful coffins. The work explores what carnival and celebrations can mean to a community.

In Jamaica, Carnival is a space where the rich and the poor are deeply divided and has become something for wealthier, usually lighter skinned people. In other Caribbean countries Carnival is a more mixed community experience.

Some questions to consider

  • Why is Ebony creating an art performance in a space that is so outside of an art gallery?
  • What is she highlighting with the coffins in bright colours?
  • Do you think that parading these coffins is a good way to include those who often cannot afford to take place in Carnival?
  • Britain has the Notting Hill Carnival. How does this reflect the legacy of empire in its public display and communal ritual? 
  • Do you take part in public displays of communal celebrations? Why have a public display of communal ritual?
  • Were your ancestors affected by colonialism or slavery?
  • In your social group, do you judge others based on how they appear or who they are or their religion or their gender (whether you are a boy, a girl, or both/neither)?

Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded

Barby Asante and I are currently developing a number of projects including Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded with a number of young artist, thinkers and activists who are part of a collective called sorryyoufeeluncomfortable.

Based on the film by filmmaker Horace Ove,  Baldwin’s Nigger documents the writer James Baldwin’s visit to the West Indian Student Centre in 1968. In the film James Baldwin talks about America, world power, religion as power and the black power movement. We have developed the work into a performance where we work with members of the public to rescript and re-perform Baldwin’s speech in a contemporary context. 

In the Reloaded project we use the script from the film to discuss issues of politics, power and identity across generations, connecting the past to the present, which is what we hope we have both done in exploring some works from the Artist and Empire exhibition.