Entangled Pasts by Isabella Tranter-Richards

With a pipe burst in my house, a cousin down due to sickness and my second-choice outfit on, I made my way to the Royal Academy of Arts. I was there to see the exhibition “Entangled Pasts”, described by the website as an exhibition that “ engages… artists…to explore themes of migration, exchange, artistic traditions, identity and belonging.” With my own heritage wafting between Africa, the Caribbean, Ireland and most recently Britain, I thought myself and my cousin Jane to be the perfect audience. 

Before I got into the building, I was happily confronted by the RA’s  newest installation: Tavares Strachan’s “The first supper.” This  monument was commissioned in honour of  the black heroes of the past, with heavy hitters such as Mary Secole and Harrit Tubman anchoring the piece. It also introduced the masses to (in my opinion) less well-known figures, like explorer Matthew Henson and the artist himself who sits at the far left. This was my introduction to the exhibit, and still, one of my favourites. 

When you first enter the exhibition, you are directed to a circular room with high ceilings, and portraits of Black Georgians. What struck me about this collection of paintings was the guesswork (that had to be done by the curators and even artists themselves). The First Painting “Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself”(1776) by Kerry James Marshall was not a true self-portrait but an imagined one of the enslaved Scipio Moorhead, who had died with no visual record. This coupled with the portrait that had been previously said to be of both Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano marked this first room, as one of anonymity and served to show how incredibly invisible black figures of the distant past were and continue to be. 

The next painting that struck my cousin and I,  was Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Kujuian Buggie.” After she thoroughly schooled me on his technique and sang Kehind’s praises, I asked my cousin why she liked his work. She told me that it felt colourful, vibrant that he depicted us, black people as we truly were. The mid fade, the slightly yellow palms and nails, everything that we had not seen in the many failed attempts of capturing our essence. While I agreed with her, on the accuracy, I also offered my perspective: that it was too colourful, too vibrant and not the tragic senses of Renaissance art I was used to. But perhaps that is the point; Wiley’s work isn’t trying to fit into a catalogue of European art but be its own authentically black creation. Eventually, we agreed to disagree and carried on.  

While I am not one to get excited at the prospect of a particular painting, (I spent less than thirty seconds looking at the Mona Lisawhen I visited France) thePortrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray left me almost speechless. Since learning of Dido Belle, I have been fascinated by her. Not only in her position as the patron saint for women of colour, but also due to her visibility, beauty, and depiction in portraiture as one of the first black people of aristocratic background. Instead of hovering below a white mistress or master, as black people had in the eighteenth century portraiture often did, she stands defiantly at eye level to her cousin Lady Elizabeth. While the portrait t has been criticised for exorcising Dido belle ,by putting her in a turban (The turban being a marker of non Englishness in the seventeen-hundreds), it still for me a mixed-race girl the first time I ever saw myself in oil paint. At least not as a servant.

Coming down from the immense art historical high, that is Dido Belle.

My final thoughts are on Frank Bowling’s Middle Passage. For full transparency, I am a recipient of the Frank Bowling scholarship. Coming face to face with the large encompassing painting, I felt it was extremely peaceful. “The Middle Passage” refers to the dangerous journey enslaved people made from Africa to the Americas, to be sold. Yet in the oranges and reds of his piece, I felt oddly calm. It is maybe because I know the destination of the enslaved or because as a descendant of enslavement, it was refreshing to see my own history depicted so beautifully, accurately and without violence. It is as if Bowling understands that we have seen the horrors, we know them, therefore told us the story in a camouflage of colours. The only truly visible shape being the outline of a few continents. Altogether it gave a hazy idea of the history but allowed it to wash over you, without being consumed by it. In short, I liked it. 

Often in spaces such as museums and art galleries, I have felt uncomfortable, being more likely to be the fetishised object of the art than the artist themselves. That is why when an exhibition that focuses on black artists comes along, it feels like a chance to feel comfortable in a place that wasn’t made for me. My time at the Entangled Pasts exhibition was enlightening and predictable all at once. But really it taught me that we need more black, decolonial  art, and especially more spaces for us as black people to exhibit and celebrate our histories.