Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, a journey into the outer reaches of the British empire, specifically names Greenwich as a place from where ships have left to explore “the mystery of an unknown earth... the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires”. Yet at the various museums in Greenwich itself, this story has only recently been addressed and, I would suggest, only episodically.
So it is to be welcomed that Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) has made an inspired and timely commission from sound artist Peter Adjaye. The work attempts to address the poorly told story of British maritime and imperial history and how it relates to Greenwich and the Tudor dynasty. Three of England’s Tudor monarchs – King Henry VIII, Queens Mary and Elizabeth – were all born in Greenwich, at the Palace of Placentia, now destroyed.
The commission comes at a critical moment with populist right wing commentators and government ministers labelling museums’ attempts to address Britain’s colonial past as “wokeism”, “culture wars”, “doing Britain down” or even “rewriting history”. Adjaye’s work is a timely rejoinder that addresses our national story as a necessary and inspirational process which, rather than repelling audiences, can produce the haunting and elegiac beauty that this artist has created.
Adjaye’s sound work responds to the three images of Queen Elizabeth I known as the Armada Portraits, on show together at Greenwich for the first time ever. There are few other images of a British monarch that conjure up such magisterial royal power and represent so effectively the founding mythology of Great Britain as a global imperial force.
Power of three
Shown in the Queen’s House at RMG, the trio of paintings includes the Woburn Abbey Armada Portrait, part of a private collection owned by the trustees of the Bedford Estate that has been in that family for centuries. The RMG Armada Portrait – previously owned by descendants of the great seafaring explorer Sir Francis Drake – was saved for the nation in 2016 as the result of a major appeal. Finally, there is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) version, which has been in public ownership since 1765. Unlike the two other pictures, which are landscape format, the NPG work has been truncated, cropping the seascapes in the background and as a result it has a more traditional portrait format.
The works are a spectacle of female power and majesty, calibrated to inspire awe and wonder and reinforce whichever of the superlatives used to refer to this monarch: Good Queen Bess, Gloriana or the Virgin Queen. Like many Tudor portraits, they are packed with symbolism and metaphor: from the pearls that symbolise Elizabeth’s chastity connecting her to mythological figures such as Cynthia, the Greek goddess of the Moon, a virgin and therefore “pure” – to the globe on which Elizabeth’s right hand rests – just over the Americas and Caribbean, precisely the locations towards which the nascent British maritime-imperial project was heading and had firmly within its sights.
What Adjaye has done is literally envelop these iconic portraits of Elizabeth with a six-channel, 52-minute sound work, inviting the listener to question the images that commemorate the most famous conflict of the Tudor queen’s reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588.
In conversation with Adjaye, I suggested to him that A Proposal for Radical Hospitality was “evidence of things not seen” – a reference to a passage from the Bible: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – Hebrews 11:1, used by the African American writer James Baldwin as the title for his book about the 1979-81 child murders in Atlanta, Georgia. I asked Adjaye whether he was addressing a similar historical crime of colonialism whose evidence is surprisingly mute at Greenwich, except perhaps in the Armada Portraits.
I suggested that his work has reverberation, even an element of distortion, that conjures up images of being under water. This perhaps suggested the traumatic Middle Passage of slaves being forcibly transported from Africa to the Americas, many of whom were thrown into the sea and that in this sense his work is evidencing an atrocity that has never been, and perhaps can never be, visualised.
Adjaye responded: “Sound has this invisible characteristic, this emotional response that is hard to quantify, which makes it very powerful. Sound is something that museums have always been scared of, but actually there is a visual history, which is quite static, making sound the perfect medium to enable other stories to have a space. Sound allows other cultural nuances to be imbued and become part of that whole visual experience without interference.”
It is highly appropriate that Adjaye has been chosen for this commission, not just because his African heritage suggests he has a particular perspective on British imperialism but because of his interest in architecture, made explicit by the name of his practice, Music 4 Architecture.
Adjaye is acutely aware of the cultural diversity that the Queen’s House represents as the first Palladian-style (after the Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio) building in England.
Sound has this invisible characteristic, this emotional response that is hard to quantify, which makes it very powerful.
Diversity in this case refers to the broader European cultural references that the English baroque architect Inigo Jones introduced to the architectural language of this house, which was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I. Adjaye channels the aural potential of the building itself as both a receptacle for sound as well as the means by which sonic events can be received, heard and even transmitted.
Adjaye has updated this syncretic process into a six-movement work with a cast of diverse voices – who one might say are themselves the very products of empire: musicians and performers Randolph Matthews, Luzmira Zerpa and Natasha Lohan, queer performer Bird la Bird, the London Lucumi Choir and the Voices in Motion Collective.
They are joined by artists Meera Chauda, Brenda Montague, and percussionist Demba Sow in an archetypally African musical procedure of call and response, in which an ensemble is divided into distinct groups, used in opposition or in response to thematic phrasing and improvisation.
“The structure of the whole thing was to bring people together, as a result of a direct call to action from a member of the Voices in Motion Collective,” says Adjaye.
“A group of older adults had been working with Natasha Lohan and RMG staff on a philosophical enquiry into the painting during the first lockdown. We tried to keep it as technologically simple as possible and transported them remotely into the space supported by Natasha and Randolph who were in the Queen’s House. It wasn’t about a script and it was mostly about sound – and to bring voices together from different locations, with the museum, the Queen’s House becoming the host.”
Adjaye’s work asks us to consider the Elizabethan period not so much around the myth of Gloriana but as the point of departure for Britain’s overseas colonial adventures.
In 1561 Elizabeth granted a patent to merchants including John Hawkins to develop trade between the Senegal and Gambia rivers in West Africa. Hawkins’ voyage to the Guinea Coast in 1562 can be seen as marking the start of the English slave trade. The Royal Charter given to the East India Company in 1600 at the end of her reign is another marker.
Rise of the British empire
A Proposal for Radical Hospitality helps us to connect and navigate the disorderly story of the British empire and its episodic and fragmentary representation on the landscape of Greenwich within the collections of RMG itself and the various historic buildings that surround it.
Once you have heard the work, you become sensitised to such disparate visual features in Greenwich and their imperial significance. These include the prime meridian, James Thornhill’s baroque ceiling in the Old Royal Naval College and even objects in the museum’s collection, such as the marine chronometer – an instrument that solved the problem of longitude to precisely determine one’s position on the high seas.
We are also able to make sense of other aspects of the site such as the Royal Observatory, the importance of astronomy and its connection with navigational science and its proximity to the Royal Dockyards at Deptford, established by Henry VIII.
A Proposal for Radical Hospitality can not only be seen as quintessentially site-specific in a response to a place, historical period and particular artworks. It is also a strong methodology that shows how museums can respond creatively to their colonial heritage, connecting a previously excluded subjectivity to objects in their collections while engaging and including new audiences.