Leeds Art Gallery’s temporary exhibition Shifting Perspectives, which examines representation and misrepresentation of African, Caribbean and Asian people in art through the centuries, doesn’t break the visitor in gently. A confident introductory text panel makes its purpose clear: to confront the elephant (or tiger – we’ll come to that) in the room: the colonial legacies of the gallery and its collections.
“Shifting Perspectives also aims to destabilise the notion that art galleries are neutral and authoritative spaces that present unquestionable truths,” the panel continues. “The exhibition challenges dominant narratives while exploring how they were constructed in the first place and acknowledging their impact and legacies on today’s society.”
The team at Leeds has tried to do this in two ways – through the juxtaposition of the artworks and through multi-voice interpretation.
I was slightly nervous as I began my way round the space, with the first section exploring depictions of people of colour “involving violence, as attackers or as sufferers”. While a text panel explains the aim is to highlight how artwork was used as imperial propaganda, the risk remains that displaying racist artworks reinforces perceptions of white supremacy (while vilifying the “other”).
Two paintings by George Baxter depicting the arrival of the missionary John Williams on the South Pacific island of Tanna and the resultant “massacre” of his party are accompanied by a long label giving useful context in clear and decisive language. The writers don’t try to objectively recount history – nor do they try to neutralise this imperialist propaganda as simply “a product of its time”. It’s a subtle deviation from your typical museum label, and one that I found created an immediate sense of trust and connection with the organisation behind it.
Many of the labels, including this one, have comments by named individuals who were on the advisory panel that helped produce the exhibition, as well as by participants in community workshops. Their comments are as powerful and insightful as anything the curators have to say – I would have liked to see them printed on the walls, or highlighted in a different colour to encourage visitors to read them and reflect further.
Another clever device is hanging visitors’ comments under the official labels. There were some very frank ones (“Eric Gill was a paedophile”) and I had to resist the urge to scribble my responses on the wall next to them. As it turns out, there is a space at the end of the exhibition to create your own labels, but by that point I’d run out of steam.
Maybe I’m showing my age, but the labels throughout the exhibition are printed in a very small font and their shape (long and thin) meant I kept having to kneel and peer closely to read them. With plenty of wall space available, the text could easily have been bigger and more accessible.
The exhibition explores different themes such as unequal power relations, the male gaze and identities “imagined, lived, challenged”. To counterbalance racist works by white artists there are many examples by “artists of the global majority”, which in some cases serve to challenge and speak truth to power.
My favourite example is Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point (2018), which shows a monochrome figure of a young Black man holding a serving tray. Made on embossed paper, the other subjects (presumably the white ladies and gentlemen he’s there to serve) are nearly impossible to make out, rendering them secondary.
This hangs next to George Morland’s 1789 painting The Fruits of Early Industry and Economy, which shows a group of white men, woman and children, and a lone Black servant who represents the root of their wealth.
Stereotypical set up
The section examining the “eroticisation, exoticisation and objectification of Black female bodies” is less successful for me. A lacy white curtain has been hung for the benefit of anyone who finds the nude paintings behind it offensive, but coupled with red paint on the wall it felt a bit sleazy and stereotypical.
There are lots of works by 19th- and early 20th-century artists, including Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein, depicting Black and Asian women in various states of undress or in “oriental” set-ups; I would have liked to see more works by women of colour disrupting this narrative.
The exception is a prominent display of Negative (1988) by the Malaysian British photographer Lesley Sanderson; the cheeky humour in her images doesn’t diminish the alternative they offer to “the National Geographic view” of Asian women as submissive and exotic.
Shifting Perspectives is in two spaces – visitors have to leave the first rooms to get to the second part. This begins with drawings by the contemporary Black British artist Charmaine Watkiss. Her celebrations of the resilience of Caribbean women are fabulous, but the different branding of the text panels and brighter lighting make it feel like it’s not part of the main exhibition. This is confusing and does her work a disservice.
Two final sections explore the different ways we perceive or create our identities and showcase work by the global majority in Leeds and beyond. The colourful resistance of Yinka Ilori’s print work Better Days are Coming I Promise, and Rights of Passage, a 1989 work by Leeds-based Phil Sayers,
left me feeling hopeful.
Coming back to that tiger in the room: I’m referring to the 1858 oil painting Retribution by Edward Armitage, on permanent display in the adjacent Ziff Gallery. This depicts Britannia in the act of killing a savage Bengal tiger in retribution for the dead bodies lying on the floor (including a cherubic blonde child).
The painting is large, powerful and, apparently, incredibly popular with the public, who either don’t know or don’t care that it was painted in response to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the brutality within its frame mirroring that of the British army’s subsequent suppression of the uprising.
A small reproduction of the painting is included in Shifting Perspectives, with a long label expanding on the history of the rebellion. Next door, the opportunity has been taken to interpret the original work – a statement that this temporary exhibition goes beyond the walls of the gallery, as Leeds continues to hold an open conversation with the city’s diverse communities on how to address difficult and different stories.