The opening room stuns: a circle of magnificent 18th-century portraits hanging spotlit in a darkened rotunda. Ignatius Sancho, actor, writer, composer, the first man of African descent to vote in Britain, speech still quick upon his lips, sits for Thomas Gainsborough in Bath. A young man, half-smiling, but with care on his brow, poses for John Singleton Copley in London. Francis Barber, servant and cherished companion to Samuel Johnson, holds his beautiful head high in Joshua Reynolds’s Leicester Square studio. Barber will be Dr Johnson’s heir.
Every sitter in every great painting is Black (including Kerry James Marshall’s contemporary imagining of Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African American artist whose life and work are known only through the fleeting praise of a 1773 poem). A whole gallery of Black subjects: this has never happened at the Royal Academy before. It is an ideal start to the most dramatic, enthralling and radical exhibition to jolt the RA out of its 256-year history.
For the explicit aim of this show, the curators say, is to explore how deeply the effects of colonialism have permeated the RA and its past, while presenting the actual experiences of Black and Brown people in those centuries. So Gainsborough’s portrait hangs near one of Sancho’s own coruscating letters: “I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please.” And Turner’s paintings of tumultuous oceans, in which so many lives would be lost on horrific transatlantic slave voyages, appear alongside Ellen Gallagher’s apparently abstract paintings, in which tiny details prove to be drowning limbs and faces.
On the opposite wall, Frank Bowling’s enormous Middle Passage from 1970 tells the tale again in blood red and burning gold, the tragic theme reprised in the faint outlines of Africa and America held in that staggering force field of paint.
The historical art is judiciously selected to shock. Johann Zoffany’s 1769 portrait of the Young family got up in frivolous fancy dress, Sir William – governor of Dominica, enslaver – sawing away at a cello in the centre, positions an enslaved Black boy right next to the blondest and most pale-skinned Young scion, who looks angelically upwards for outrageous contrast. Copley’s portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, daughters of a slaver in Antigua, gives only the smallest hint of their background in the Antiguan hummingbird supposedly alighting on Mary’s tiny white hand.
And before anyone starts to imagine that Reynolds, the RA’s first president, was an unqualified abolitionist, look at his soaring portrait of the future George IV in silver satin and blue velvet suffering his garments to be intimately adjusted by a Black servant whose face, of course, we cannot see.
A mahogany paint box of the kind used by both Reynolds and Turner appears much later in the show, lying in a period glass case. In fact, it is a superbly mordant mockup by Keith Piper, founding member of the pioneering 1980s BLK Art Group, each pan of pigment classified – as if for a British overseer – in minute gradations of dark-to-light skin colour.
Each gallery has a different atmosphere and theme, choreographed for constant syncopation. A room of quietly beautiful prints and watercolours travels from India to Tahiti through changing time schemes. Another juxtaposes 18th-century paintings of the Caribbean as a perfect paradise of peace and plenty, all social and racial equality, with Karen McLean’s epigrammatic 2010 installation titled Primitive Matters: Huts. Shifting photographic projections of vast houses in Trinidad flicker over wooden shacks no bigger than the fragments of parquet from which they are made. Wealth overshadows poverty; grandeur slithers over humble scale.
Isaac Julien’s film Lessons of the Hour plays in a gallery lined with velvet drapes. The American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, played by Ray Fearon, gives his visionary lecture to an audience of white Victorians over in Edinburgh. On a piano in that film you see a small edition of Hiram Powers’s sculpture The Greek Slave, a nubile nude that was insanely famous across America in the 19th century. In one version, Powers swapped the chains for manacles, in an allusion to the growing anti-slavery movement. But several variations are on show in Entangled Pasts, so that you can see the different stages of his propaganda.
This is creative, absorbing and highly intelligent: ideas embodied through art itself rather than via the deadening wall texts that instruct us round similar shows. For there have been other such institutional self-interrogations of late, including last year’s rehang of Tate Britain in the light of its foundations in colonial slavery.
Nothing in that reorganisation, however, is quite so devastatingly direct as the triangulation of three works in the gallery here devoted to whiteness. This subject goes in many directions, from images of cotton fields where enslaved people laboured sometimes from the age of barely six, like Frederick Douglass, to paintings such as William Mulready’s The Toy Seller (1863), where a Black man gives a weary side-eye to a whiny little white child too frightened to look at him from Mummy’s arms.
Instantly you look with new eyes at the vast expanse of white cotton extending all the way down the table of postprandial chaps in Frederick William Elwell’s portrait of the Royal Academy’s 1938 selection and hanging committee. And at the hideous painting of two white-skinned, redheaded girls struggling to cover their nakedness with white cloths against prying eyes in Frank Dicksee’s 1892 Startled. Dicksee, future RA president, gave a lecture to his students: “Our ideal of beauty must be the white man’s.”
Directly opposite hangs a pristine white sheet, pegged to a line. A black steam iron is chained to an ironing board below – its shape suddenly chiming, in mind, with those terrifying diagrams of slave ships. This installation, by the great nonagenarian artist Betye Saar, born in California in 1926, is so searingly concise you scarcely notice the KKK monogram embroidered on the sheet.
Lubaina Himid’s lifesize cutouts of enslaved Africans forced to work as dog trainers, dancers, toy-makers and ceramicists, for instance, when shipped over to 18th-century Bristol, are given two full galleries in which to spread their joyous yet poignant presence (the tragic labels on their backs for once fully visible). They speak directly to other figures all through this exhibition, but also to Tavares Strachan’s lifesize recreation of The Last Supper in black and gold in the RA courtyard outside, all the parts played by heroes of Black history.
A key to these figures is supplied; and it remains, alas, necessary. Which goes to a question almost imperceptibly raised at the very start of this show. For Dorothy Price and her exceptional team of female curators have included Marshall’s imaginary portrait of Scipio Moorhead for more than its sheer quality alone. Which of us has heard of this vanished painter? Who can say for certain that this really is Francis Barber in Joshua Reynolds’s portrait? And why don’t we have any real idea who John Singleton Copley is painting? Pay attention through this show and art will challenge history: who ignored the humanity, and the identity, of all these long-lost people?