Art, design & empire: contemporary artists and the legacy of empire
The rise and fall of empire has been crucial to Britain's history and it also influenced art and design on many levels in Britain and the colonies. In this video, contemporary artists Lubaina Himid, Jane Adam and Yinka Shonibare discuss how empire and cultural exchange has influenced and shaped British design.
David Dabydeen: ' What could be more British than a nice cup of tea? Fish and Chips? The Union Jack? Icons of British culture. But look a little closer and you' ll see that none of them are originally British at all.
Tea was first imported from China in the 16th century. The potato found its way to British kitchens all the way from the Americas. And in the 17th century cotton fabric came to Britain from India. All these things came to Britain courtesy of global trade. And controlling this trade was one of the main motivations behind the expansion of the British Empire.
By developing global influence and building an empire, Britain could exploit natural resources and native labour. It could also secure important markets for British goods. As people and products travelled between Britain and its colonies, the Empire became a catalyst for extraordinary cultural exchange.
The influence of Empire on British life really began in the 17th century. Two hundred years later, in 1876, this memorial to Prince Albert was unveiled. That same year Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. By now, Britain had colonised territories in Europe, Africa, Asia America and Australasia.
Empire was seen as essential to national prosperity. It had become an important part of British identity and touched the lives of people of all social classes.
Evidence of Empire could be seen on the streets of British towns and cities. It changed the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the objects they desired and collected, and it changed the way they furnished their homes.
This influx of design ideas, raw materials and products had a profound effect on 19th-century art and design. This film shows how three contemporary artists respond to the legacy of empire - in terms of their own work and how they view historic objects.'
Lubaina Himid (artist): ' Although this room does look very British, the hidden histories of the Empire are all over the room. There' s the West African mahogany, chintz fabric on sofas, the rug is Persian, the piano is most likely Australian blackwood and the keys African ivory. You know it kind of has this light airy Tuesday afternoon feel to it what you' ve got is sort of the whole world cluttered in the room.
The octagonal table in the watercolour was much more an ornament in the room, whereas, I think in its proper setting it was much more of a functional object. I think people chose those objects because they wanted to feel sophisticated and worldly.
Most of my work stems from either my own experience having been born in Zanzibar but having most of my life been spent here in Britain. And then the other bit of the influences on my work are that kind of fantastically aggressive act of taking a people from a continent and making slaves of them. All this kind of aggressive behaviour is then kind of transformed suddenly into let' s embrace everything, let' s kind of colonise it and take it in and take it into our front room. Instead of having you know slave servants about the place we' ll have a lovely piece of fabric or we' ll have a delicate table, so we' ve kind of then kind of brought it all in, colonised it, owned it and kind of made it British.'
David Dabydeen: ' An important function of Empire was securing the supply of raw materials and in the 19th century mining became very big business.
New sources of metals and gemstones were exploited with little regard for the human and environmental consequences. Gold was found in Australia and Canada, and the discovery of diamonds in South Africa spurred Britain' s expansion in the region.
All these places provided British jewellery designers with an abundance of raw materials, whilst other parts of the Empire also provided design ideas.'
Jane Adam (designer): ' I love the fact that this Mughal ring has this beautiful decorated inside that nobody but the wearer would actually see and know about, and I use that kind of idea in my own work I hide gold, I hide pearls, the inside is always as beautiful as the outside even though it will never be seen. I feel that talks a kind of preciousness and value and an intimacy which is very important to a jeweller because of the relationship that a piece of jewellery has with its wearer.
When I first saw this enamel necklace, I was absolutely staggered, I' d expected something at least three times the size. It was made in response to a historical piece - the taste in Victorian Britain wasn' t for contemporary Indian jewellery, they were interested in the artefacts of a different age. This Mughal thumb ring was made in the 18th century and the neck piece dates from a century later and was made in Britain. The design is derived directly from Mughal design and if you look at the inside of this ring you can see how that design has been taken and translated directly into these ogee pendants, which I think work absolutely beautifully on this neck piece.
The Seringapatam set of jewels is very interesting because it shows exactly the relationship between Indian jewellery and British jewellery. It' s made of emeralds captured from Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, and he would have used them as big fat blobs, almost their natural shapes, simply polished, and when they were brought to England they were re-cut to give the glitter which was appreciated by the British.
In terms of cutting the stones, this response is quite typical: the way that the materials were very valued but the actual original design and use of the pieces was not considered to be nearly so interesting.
My feeling is that as British people, we' ve always traded and invaded and I am a cultural mongrel, that my culture is so much enriched by the cultures of so many other countries.'
David Dabydeen: ' By the beginning of the 19th century the British textile industry had been transformed by the industrial revolution and Britain' s colonies provided new and expanding markets for the booming textile industry.
However, silk was still imported from Asia, and the popularity of Indian styles inspired many British designers and manufacturers.'
Yinka Shonibare (artist): ' I started to look at the 19th century as the basis for my own practice because it has in fact very much formed my own identity. I was born in London but grew up partly in Nigeria and then came back and so there has always been a British influence or a colonial influence.
I became really interested in the notion of authenticity. The things I see as being very English are in fact not, you know, necessarily authentically English.
Paisley is very interesting in the way it actually evolved. British designers took Buta motifs from the Indian shawls and added to them.
Indian designers also realised what the British taste was, the British market, so the Paisley actually became much more elongated and made by Indian designers for the English market.
I' m quite fascinated by the fact that the more of a gentleman you are the more, you know, exotic things you can have.
The smoking hat has Indian embroidery on it. The slippers are very interesting because the slippers are made out of snakeskin and they look absolutely, you know, outrageous and a bit too sort of excessive.
There is actually no me without the idea of art and empire because I am essentially bicultural, bilingual. I make my work about myself essentially, about my own history. I am sure it would have been most amazing for the British designers to have seen, you know, designs from India or, you know, African-influenced things. And of course it' s, you know, very inspiring to be able to, you know, take from other cultures and reinterpret them. This has in a sense actually always been the story of art.'
David Dabydeen: ' The rise and fall of Empire has been crucial to Britain' s history and it also influenced art and design on many levels in Britain and the colonies.
Sometimes the influence is obvious, at other times less so. But, from the 17th century onwards, Britain' s colonies were increasingly providing both the raw materials and the inspiration for design.
Take a close look at the objects in the British Galleries and judge for yourselves …'
The rise and fall of empire has been crucial to Britain' s history and it also influenced art and design on many levels in Britain and the colonies. In this video, contemporary artists Lubaina Himid, Jane Adam and Yinka Shonibare discuss how empire and cultural exchange has influenced and shaped British design.