Tate Liverpool’s exhibition ‘Whose Tradition?’ asks controversial questions about the purpose of the art gallery, the issue of cultural appropriation, and the responsibilities of institutions in dealing with generational trauma. At first glance, it shows us a vibrant interaction between the new and the old, the established and unconventional. Yet a complex history of cultural exchange – and theft – is displayed in only a small two-room space.
Pacita Abad’s striking quilted canvases greet you as you enter. Abad’s Filipino heritage, as well as her travels around Asia, Africa and Latin America, informed her work. Patterns, bold colours, and the image of the mask combine to create a visually extraordinary piece that seems to hover in mid-air. This contemporary amalgamation of cultural influences sets the tone for the exhibition. The role of artistic inspiration and artistic theft in western art is complex and enmeshed within the canon of western art history, and it is important that we recognise and remember this. It’s only recently that large institutions have begun to accept and recognise their roles in ignoring non-western and non-white artists, and for an exhibition to choose this focus is a step in the right direction. However, the Tate should not be praised excessively for doing the bare minimum.
The wording of the exhibition’s promotional and wall texts require alteration. ‘As a gallery set on Liverpool’s former Docks, this display speaks to the heart of our diverse city’s history of trading around the world.’ This phrasing is surely evasively positive. Albert Dock, where Tate Liverpool is located, has a notorious history of involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. ‘History of trading’ is a vastly inadequate description for the human rights atrocities that were committed and facilitated by that location. The wall texts inside do marginally better, mentioning colonialism and stating that artistic inspiration from other cultures was ‘rarely carried out on equal terms.’ Here is where the question about the purpose of exhibitions arises: is the primary purpose of an art gallery to be educational? Does the Tate have a responsibility to the public to educate them on historical matters like the transatlantic slave trade? Not everyone would agree; some claim art should ask questions, not be made to answer them. But when taking on a topic as heavily weighted as cultural exchange, an institution should perhaps be held to a different standard. It would be unethical to half-heartedly mention these issues without at least providing links to further resources and more information.
As you move through the display, there are examples of more well-known (and, in my opinion, less interesting) artists like Picasso and Matisse. It is interesting to compare the work of artists who travelled and saw the cultures they were inspired by first-hand, and those who visited ethnographic museums fuelled by colonial theft (see; Picasso). It is frustrating that most of the pieces in these collections were not considered art, but artefacts from ‘primitive’ cultures often sold for next to nothing. And yet without these influences western art could not have developed in the way that it did. Cubism, one of the first modern art movements, was heavily reliant on African art. Seeing this show in the wake of the BLM protests in June, I can’t help but feel anger towards the colonial systems that fed the works on display. And yet there are examples of artists relying on cultural influences in a positive way, as in Henry Moore’s ‘Mask’. He researched Mexican masks and respected the craft, drawn to their lack of symmetry which he thought effectively imitated a real face.
Being inspired by different cultures is not a bad thing if there is adequate credit given and no abuse of power. Globalisation, accessible travel, and the rise of the internet has meant that now we have access to more cultural variation than ever before. If artists approach this with respect and awareness, cultural exchange can be an invaluable tool.
I could write an entire article about the questionable colonial origins and intentions of the Tate (see here). This knowledge plays a part in my critique of this exhibition. But does it matter that this show could be labelled a product of ‘BLM-washing’ if it still educates the public? Especially in Tate Liverpool, on Albert Dock. After all, what I took away from ‘Whose Tradition?’ was the contrast between the privileged white artists and the artists who experienced the disastrous effects of colonisation. Even if the Tate have made some mistakes in their wording, it is better to have a faulty show with a diverse range of artists than no show at all.