Questions of empire, commonwealth, art and museums

I just came across an interesting dialogue between Avaes Mohammad and Alison Smith on the Museum Association website. Avaes Mohammad, a poet, playwright and performer, is the project coordinator at British Future, an independent thinktank and Alison Smith is the lead curator of British art to 1900 at Tate Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past is at Tate Britain, London, until 10 April

I had a flying visit to the exhibition in Tate Britain last week and I felt mildly alarmed by the familiarity of several images, which must be due to my parental colonial background. My Dutch mother was born in Borneo and my father was in the Dutch army when they withdrew from Indonesia. I was brought up to have nasi goreng as a family meal and have inherited many Indonesian artefacts. I was funded by UNESCO is 2002 to be an artist in residence in Bandung, retracing my father’s life from photos he’d taken 1949/51.

I have often pondered whether one of the legacies of empire, which Smith and Mohammad refer to, is that many contemporary artists are descendants of that colonial upbringing. I’ve long held a belief that the quite risk-taking lifestyle, moving to a distant country, to ‘manage’ the business of the empire, surely relied on quite a bohemian attitude? Looking at photos of my grandmother wearing silk men’s pyjamas and smoking a cheroot in a holder in one hand, and a large gin in the other, in front of heavy dark Dutch furniture, is evidence that alternative style was de-rigour. How many artists in their 50’s+ come from colonial backgrounds? Did that background enable them to perceive the world through socially privileged lenses that were also,  in some ways, rebellious, because of the fearlessness they have of ‘otherness’?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to commission some of these artists, who are direct descendants of the British (and other European) occupation of so many colonies, to make work now, in the knowledge of how history is being reflected on. Not as trophy art, but as auto-ethnographic social history?

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