Contextualising controversy: Why artist Keith Piper is defending a 'racist' mural at Tate Britain

Installation photograph 1 - 3, 'Viva Voce' at Tate Britain.
Installation photograph 1 - 3, 'Viva Voce' at Tate Britain. Copyright Keith Piper, Viva Voce 2024. Installation photograph © Tate (Joe Humphrys)
By Amber Louise Bryce
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A controversial mural at Tate Britain is back on display alongside a film by British artist Keith Piper that seeks to challenge and contextualise it.

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What should be done about offensive art? 

It's a complex question that continues to plague museum directors and society at large, as works seen to perpetuate racism or celebrate the horrors of colonialism are rallied against, with increasing calls for censorship.

In a unique response, London's Tate Britain is displaying a counter film by British artist Keith Piper alongside a controversial Rex Whistler mural, 'The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meat', which previously decorated the walls of the gallery's restaurant before being closed to the public in 2020 due to its racist imagery. 

Piper's installation, 'Viva Voce', was commissioned to address the 1927 mural, which features two enslaved black children and caricatures of Chinese people. 

Projected on two screens that hang in the room where the mural resides, Piper's film aims to challenge Whistler's work through exploring its creation within the "social and political context of 1920s Britain," the Tate said.  

The 20-minute film imagines a conversation between a fictional academic and Whistler, who is asked about his mural and the racist imagery within it.

Consideration is given to the time and place in which Whistler was working, with 'Viva Voce' including archival footage of Black soldiers in the First World War, the 1926 General Strike and the 'Races in Residence' exhibit at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, which saw almost 300 people from colonised countries demonstrating native crafts in a dehumanising display.  

Artist Keith Piper.
Artist Keith Piper.Keith Piper. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes; Courtesy: a-n The Artists Information Company

A multimedia artist, academic and founding member of the groundbreaking 1980's BLK Art Group, an association of young Black artists, Piper strongly believes in the importance of interrogating offensive imagery and getting to the root of how and why it was created. 

 “I know there is an argument among young people now that these images retraumatise, but I think we either look or forget," Keith Piper said in an interview with the Guardian

"We are very good at forgetting nowadays and things that are out of sight go out of mind. To keep a clear sense of history we need to see these things," he added.  

Who was Rex Whistler?

A revered 20th century artist, Whistler was known for his whimsical illustrations and portraiture of London's 'Bright young things', a tabloid term given to the young bohemian socialites of the 1920s, of which Whistler was a part. 

He completed his mural for the Tate Britain's former cafe when he was just 22-years-old, depicting seven explorers in search of rare meats. In recent years, however, it has garnered controversy due to its inclusion of offensive imagery such as Black children in chains. 

Backlash from a duo of art critics known as 'The White Pube' led to a review by the Tate's ethics committee in 2020, who said they "were unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive."

Contextualising contentious art

Museums across the world continue to grapple with the knotty issues around displaying offensive or potentially traumatic art.

Last year, Kunsthaus Zurich, one of Switzerland's top art museums, launched a controversial exhibition of Nazi-era artworks looted from Jewish collectors. 

"The artwork themselves are not guilty," Ann Demeester, Kunsthaus Zurich's director, explained, "but they are a testimony to this history of horror".

Demeester went on to clarify that the exhibition's intention was to address and contextualise the works' complex historical issues, while also ensuring that they are still seen by the public.  

Speaking on Keith Piper's installation, Tate Britain's director Alex Farquharson said: "By simultaneously rooting the mural in the past and confronting it in the present, Viva Voce will no doubt inspire many more conversations about the relationship between the two."

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