An “Uncomfortable Art Tour” at Tate Britain with Alice Procter

Alice Procter gestures in front of “Death of Major Peirson,” John Singleton Copley (1783) as she uses the painting to discuss colonialism, race, and Scottish-English relations.

During their trip to London, Marabou had the pleasure of hopping on a tour of Tate Britain with Alice Procter. Marabou first learned about Alice through an April 2018 article in The Guardian written by Alice herself. In the article Alice states,

“Being physically in a gallery, a space that privileges some experiences over others, and critiquing this, is a form of dissent. It’s a way of opening up the debate about whose stories deserve to be told – and whose faces seen – when we talk about Britishness and nationhood. Museums are institutions of memory – they must stop pretending there’s only one version of events, and be willing to own up to their role in shaping the way we see the past.”

Reading this Marabou knew they had an ally, a comrade. On her website, The Exhibitionist, Alice offers tours that entail what she describes above. Imagine their delight when just after meeting up for coffee at Tate Britain with friend Janine Francois, Janine invited Marabou to join her on a tour. Little did Marabou know it was one of Alice’s “Uncomfortable Art Tours.” (Shoutout: Thank you, Janine! Janine is a scholar who is working on her PhD at the University of Bedfordshire via the Tate system of museums and considering the idea of museums, like the Tate, as safe/brave spaces to discuss race and cultural difference within a teaching and learning context. Follow her IG and blog It’s Janine BTW)

A view of one of Tate Britain’s galleries.

This post is not a recap of the entire tour, that would be stealing Alice’s thunder. Instead Marabou is highlighting parts of the tour and Alice’s techniques. During her tour, Alice illustrated that museums do not require a complete revamp of their collections to have important and difficult conversations about colonialism, enslavement, and racism. Museums, at the very least, just need to change the perspective from which they analyze, write, and speak about the works on display. For institutions like Tate Britain, connections to colonialism and the slave trade run deep. In addition to praising a painter’s ability to capture the grimace of his subject and delicacy of brushstroke, museums should also talk about the painter’s political and economic world views. Why not explore how these opinions can be reflected in the art work? Another approach is to let art serve as a springboard to larger conversations. This is what Alice did with a regal portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

The first stop on Alice’s tour was in front of a full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) by Steven van der Meulen, Steven van Herwijck. In contrast to the fine detail of the painting and Elizabeth’s closed mouth, Alice described how most British children are fascinated by the fact that Elizabeth I had black teeth, a result of her sweet tooth fueled by the recently established international sugar trade. Alice went on to explain that Queen Elizabeth was the one to issue a Royal Charter for England to colonize America. In 1564 the queen commissioned one of England’s first slave trade tours by providing money and ships. Alice shared this information to openly address England’s slave trading history, but also to connect the colonial period and the founder of the Tate Gallery, Henry Tate, a sugar merchant. In just a few minutes Alice drew connections between a period of celebrated English history and the very museum in which visitors were standing. Tate Britain is an institution funded by money from the sugar trade, which was made possible by enslaved labor, the displacement of people, and exploitation. Marabou appreciated Alice’s illumination of the reality that museums are not neutral and that past actions (both moral and immoral) inform, fund, and influence our experiences in the present. As Marabou has stated before, museums should not turn a blind eye to the way financial supporters acquire their wealth. When the money to fund so-called “forward-thinking” programming comes from sources of oppression, the museum does not wipe away the guilt and actions of its funders. Instead, the museum becomes complicit in these transgressions. The acquisition of funders’ money is not just a historical question for museums like the Tate, but is an active discussion. The Whitney Museum in New York is receiving ongoing pushback about its Vice Chairman who owns a company that provides military and law enforcements products, like the tear gas used on migrants at the US/Mexico border and during protests in Ferguson, MO and Standing Rock in the Dakotas. During her tour, Alice constantly made connections between past and present and visitors followed suit.

“The Strode Family,” William Hogarth (1738), Tate Britain.

When looking at a seemingly unassuming portrait of the Strode family having tea by William Hogarth (many are most familiar with his “A Rake’s Progress”), Alice highlighted Hogarth’s absolute fear and paranoia of edible/drinkable imports coming into England. Hogarth and other like-minded souls believed that the consumption of imports like tea (now synonymous with Britishness), coffee, and chocolate compromised one’s innate Britishness, tainting the purity of British culture. In response to Alice’s explanation, Janine quipped, “So a pre-Brexit Brexit.” Another visitor chimed in that Hogarth’s perspective reminded her of the term “soy boy,” slang coined by incels (involuntarily celibate men who are part of a subculture of far-right, white, heterosexual men). Incels believe the consumption of soy has wreaked havoc on male testosterone, making those who eat soy products less masculine. Although the soy boy conversation was an unexpected one, it made Marabou think about how we mirror and repeat history much more often than we realize.

After Hogarth, Alice went on to describe how the painting, “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” by Johan Zoffany, is great fodder for exploring the complicated colonial history between England and India. Alice pointed out that up until 2018 the painting’s gallery text contained the line, “In India, normal rules of morality did not apply.” The statement was supposedly only referring to the fact that England had outlawed cockfighting by 1784-5 (the date of the painting), while India had not. However the haughty tone of British civility implies that India in general was a place of immorality and the abnormal. Although it may be surprising such language and implications were only recently reconsidered, it seems that Tate Britain is struggling with the way it talks about non-white and non-British people and places.

“Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge),” John Simpson, (1827).

Alice invited us to gather around a portrait in a round gold frame as she informed the group that it is the only painting of an individual person of color on display at Tate Britain. The official gallery title says, “Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge)” but the initial name of the painting was “Head of a Black”. Ira Aldridge was a New Yorker who studied at the African Free School. Arriving across the Atlantic in 1824, he became the first black man to play Othello in England. Alice uses the painting as a device to think about Aldridge’s experience as a black male artist in the mid-1800s. She shared that the script of Othello was altered to make audiences feel more comfortable as they observed a black actor playing Othello against a white Desdemona. In the media, the depiction of Aldridge’s skin color varied depending on the tone of an article. If he was being described as a theater heartthrob, Aldridge was portrayed as more white. For writers who saw him as a threat, accompanying images made him appear darker. Another important point about the painting is that it is thought to be a study for a larger painting by John Simpson entitled “The Captive Slave” (1827) depicting a seated Aldridge chained to a bench. What would that experience have been like for Aldridge, a free black man from America, to pose wearing shackles for a painting that would be entitled “The Captive Slave” when slavery was alive and well in the United States? As art can express emotion, in the instance of Aldridge’s portrait, art can also invoke empathy. As guests on Alice’s tour thought about Aldridge, she reminded everyone to question how far we’ve come in terms of racial representation in entertainment.

“Punch of May Day,” Benjamin Robert Haydon (1829), Tate Britain.
Lower right corner detail of “Punch of May Day.”

Alice continued to consider the historical experiences of black people in a gallery of mostly white subjects by drawing attention to the painting just next to Aldridge’s portrait, “Punch or May Day” by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1829). The portrayal of a hectic street scene where a variety of classes collide includes in the foreground what the Tate describes as, “a dancing chimney sweep with blond curls and soot-blackened face. This performance of ‘blackness’ contrasts with the artist’s treatment of the black footman standing at the back of the carriage.” Alice explained that there are many people who see the painting and are resistant to the idea of saying the child is in blackface, preferring to believe that his face is dirty simply because he is a chimney sweep. Marabou finds it interesting that these two paintings sit side by side and the museum doesn’t offer ways to create a dialogue between them. It is up to the visitor to make connections. The paintings are completed just two years apart, there is plenty of opportunity to examine the experience of 1820s London from multiple, and often forgotten perspectives: that of Aldridge, a black actor, the black footman in service to a white family, working-class Londoners, and working children.

Side by side in a gallery at Tate Britain, “Punch or May Day” and “Portrait of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge)”.

As the tour zigzagged from painting to painting, it was clear that Tate Britain is not at any loss for artwork to spark conversations about colonial relations, racism, class divides, and how history is literally painted to portray people and events in a certain way. If only the institution would seize the opportunities to initiate difficult discussion instead of willfully ignore the offenses in its galleries. At the tour’s completion, Alice acknowledged her privilege as a white woman and how this privilege makes it easier for her to go into museum spaces to raise questions about an institution’s history, display practices, accessibility, and representation. It is important to question how a tour like this would be received by the Tate Britain, museum guards, and other visitors if lead by a person of color. Ending on this note reminded Marabou that when addressing museum accessibility and inclusion, we need to consider not only who can be in the space, but also who has the privilege to critique it.

Thank you, Alice, for leading an insightful and inspiring experience at Tate Britain and leaving Marabou with plenty of food for thought!

If you’re in London, check out one (or more) of Alice’s tours. Next time around Marabou plans to take Alice’s tours of the British Museum and V&A.

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