By Claire Kalikman
Students returning to the Yale Center for British Arts this fall may notice things are a little different. Following a multi-year restoration of the famed Louis Khan designed building, the top floors reopened, and the pieces on each floor have been rearranged in a different and thought-provoking way. There is more of a focus now on what the museum is terming “Britain in the World”. It appears that there are more pieces addressing not just life in Britain, but also Britain’s impact through colonialism and empire. More prominently displayed are pieces that challenge British identity and its impact throughout the world.
One such is John Frederick Lewis’ “A Lady Receiving Visitors”. The 19th century British artist travelled extensively through Morocco and Egypt. This highly detailed pieces depicts an ornate interior of the mandarah, a first-floor reception room in an Egyptian house. Women lounge about in the image receiving guests. Yet, though the piece in all its detailed splendour appears to be a carefully studied depiction of the interior, women were not allowed in such a space. The accompanying explanation suggests that perhaps the artist was challenging British conceptions of treatment of Muslim women in Egypt and the Middle East. However one wonders if this was an intentional challenge to a British critique of the Muslim system they did not fully understand, or if the artist himself lacked the cultural knowledge to accurately paint such a piece, and if he is in fact contributing to misconceptions about this part of the world.
In contrast, another piece – “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” – by the canonical Turner remains in view where it has been for many years, with additional commentary. New signage with information about a piece’s original exhibition, and literary or journalistic quotes have recently been appended to many works. It seems that the museum is trying to give a more robust explanation of what the viewer is seeing, either to provide additional context, or to provoke critical thought. The YCBA has always tried to trace British history through the art it exhibits; this Romantic oil painting tells the story of Turner’s voyage by steamboat to a remote island, when a storm suddenly struck. With the context of the steamboat, the viewer can understand this work as emblematic of the Industrial Revolution that transformed Britain and British society in the 19th century.
Differing drastically is a piece by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. In his work, the artist often addresses the theme of colonialism and its impact on Africa. He makes frequent use of Dutch wax fabrics. Many people see this fabric and think of it as distinctly “African”. Yet Shonibare likes to point out the history of it: it was actually produced widely and cheaply in the UK and the Netherlands, and merchants then tried to sell it in Indonesia. While it was never popular there, vendors then tried to market it to Africa, where it found a wide audience. Many African people use the fabric in beautiful and distinct ways, but the artist makes a subtle critique that the fabric is not really African, but was dumped there during British imperialism. This cross-cultural connection illuminates the idea of “Britain in the World”. In the piece on display – Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina – the artist has constructed a sculpture of a black woman in a 19th century dress made of the fabric. Instead of a head she has a birdcage, and birds rest on her. The whole piece sits on top of a globe. It emblematizes Britain’s colonial past. The piece was created specifically for a 2017 YCBA exhibit.
In short, the rearranged galleries put more of an emphasis on Britain’s role outside just Britain, and its ongoing legacy in the world. It exhibits both classic pieces immediately recognizable as “British”, as well as pieces that challenge this identity.
Claire is a sophomore in Morse College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.