Pt II: Navigating Blackness – Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Decolonizing Art History

When we are confronted with images thought to represent the height of elegance, sensibility or “politeness,” it seems rather taxing to link these outwardly light-hearted concepts to their much darker counterparts.[8]  For that reason, it is not something we tend to pay attention to. The national galleries at Trafalgar Square, as well as the Musée du Louvre in Paris, give us numerous examples of these more widely used forms of historical, western representation.[9]  Being as famous as they are, these spaces convey a nation, through art on a global scale with the level of tourism they attract. At first, we find ourselves dwarfed by pedimented edifices, externally reminiscent of Greco-Roman architecture. Perhaps as an attempt to establish an equalised sense of power to the Roman empire at its prime (fig. 3 and 4). Over time, the buildings themselves and the paintings within remain unchanged. But perhaps the questions asked by Dorothy Price and Catherine Grant in the Art Journal as well as Françoise Vergès’ thought-provoking program, The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity, might implore us to see a change in the narrative stream these spaces conjure.[10]

Pt II: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 3. The National Gallery, an exterior view. Trafalgar Square, London.

Pt II: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 4. The Musée du Louvre, an exterior view. Paris, France.

Of the paintings which occupy the walls of the National Gallery, slavery, Transatlantic trade and the globalised British empire do not obviously present themselves. We, as a twenty-first-century audience, do not tend to separate the “mask” of porcelain politeness, fashioned by many artists of the eighteenth century in this way; even though this was the height of the slave trade.[11]  We tend to study pre-slavery, post-abolition or an entirely unrelated topic within the same period. Confronting our expectations of what should and should not be represented surrounding colonization and how it should or should not be seen in our current society is not an easy feat.

Colonization. To some this term is often associated with the past. A narrative lost in a somewhat linear view of history, that sees change as a means of moving from one point to another, in one perspective; instead of accumulating multiple experiences in its teachings. But, an everchanging social climate cultivates new ideas or theories for studying and recognising historical practices. Colonization bares Latin origins in the forms of Colōnia or Colonus; one meaning “a colony or settlement of conquered or annexed lands by Roman citizens” and the other “designates someone who settles, cultivates, or farms land.”[12]  These are words, descriptive of an ancient or even biblical concept of stewardship over dominion; that is, for one to own another. It is potentially this desire for ownership, both of land and people, that has filtered into what many of us might describe as “modern colonialism,” praxes we associate heavily with early modern Europe.[13]  We think of empire, and the re-occupation of one society by another, transferring their own politics and ideals to create authority or proprietorship. Focusing on the eighteenth century, we see displays of wealth, power and an almost god-like representation created by painters with the potential incentive of continuing the art historical canon as they see fit.

Perhaps, the retrospective element of this essay of two halves, by starting from a twenty-first-century perspective, can be used to our benefit, almost as a method for evaluating the work of the eighteenth-century masters. In this, we will not only look for what is missing but find what is hidden in plain sight.

Even the most unlikely subjects can become highly important in an argument, depending on the methodology one chooses to apply. George Stubbs’ iconic painting of Whistlejacket, the rearing “thoroughbred” racehorse, is amongst the most famous pieces in the National Gallery collection (fig. 5).[14]  Looking at this piece in a room full of representations of the most affluent members of polite society, we might be asking ourselves what exactly a horse has to do with decolonizing art history (fig.1). At surface level, it is almost completely unrelated. But when we pay closer attention to the context in which this “performance” was created, we find interesting links between Stubbs’ obsession with the thoroughbred horse and the “well-bred” figures of polite, white, society.[15]  Whistlejacket arguably becomes emblematic for the importance, at this time, of an “untainted” bloodline bred for a purpose. Equally, because Whistlejacket was a winning racehorse, this painting showcases commodity and ownership at its finest, which arguably is what colonialism is all about.[16]

Pt II: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.
Figure 5. George Stubs, Whistlejacket, c.1762. Oil on canvas, 116.5 x 97.6 in. National Gallery, London. 

So, with an idea of what a colonized art history means and looks like; what then do we make of a decolonized art history? It seems pivotal to understand what the consensus is behind such broad historiographical debates. In this year’s February issue, the journal Art History came out with a new major publication, “Decolonizing Art History.” It contains a series of prompts, which question the changing socio-political climate, that creates and represents the art historical canon as we know it. It has a rather unusual format as a journal entry because Grant and Price designed it to be openly interacted with. Most art journals are created as individual arguments within a wider debate, so this question and answer format is not typical.

It received responses from curators, artists, art historians and others within the art world, with thirty answers published in total. The general consensus of the investigation seems to be that people are aware of the extent to which western art history is colonized but have differing ideas of what it means to decolonize the discipline and how to do it. Of the four questions, prompting a diverse range of responses, the second and fourth questions sparked the most interest for the debate at hand:

What is your understanding of decolonizing art history now? What does a decolonized art history look like? How should it be written/practised?

Where should decolonization in relation to art history happen? What strategies might different spaces for decolonization demand?[17]

We are familiar with studies and representations of colonized western art history because, generally speaking, it is the norm. It seems these questions require a great deal of deconstructing in order to form a comprehensive response. “Colonized” art history, in many ways, is what we are used to. So, to “decolonize” the discipline, are we deconstructing it to create something opposite or something entirely unknown?[18]  Interestingly, the first response in a line of varying opinions appeals the most. David Bailey quite correctly stated his concerns. In his statement, he emphasises that “a decolonized art history should always include multiple narratives” and that it is “about different histories and not a story that becomes the narrative.”[19]  This statement does not seek to undermine the cultural span of the art historical canon, but to question the accessibility of it. We are potentially more aware of the “triumph-filled” histories of conquest; but arguably, there is more to be unearthed and taught regarding other experiences of the histories more directly concerning those who were conquered. It does not concern the efforts put into researching these topics in niche university level projects or scholarly debates; it is about how this is presented to the wider society.

Tim Barringer offers a quite significant caveat, reminding us that “the history of art cannot deny its own intellectual inheritance: it has developed as an academic discipline since the eighteenth century with racialized concepts at its core.”[20]  This is particularly noteworthy because it highlights arguments that could potentially perceive this essay as an attack on the current art historical canon or the ways we study within it. But, at its core, historiography shows us that the answers or information we unearth very much depends on the kind of questions we ask or where we choose to dig.

Specifically focusing on the fourth set of questions, which ask us where decolonization in relation to art history should happen, there are examples which share these objectives.[21]  In 2012, for the Paris Triennial, Françoise Vergès organised a program titled “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,” which hosted guided visits in search for the “ghosts of slaves in the Louvre.”[22]  The significance of this program for our current argument speaks for itself. Not only does it show a pre-existing way of expressing the ideas we have questioned, but its sheer existence should have continued to stimulate wider discussion.

What are we looking for in the presentation of “decolonized” art history?[23]

Interestingly, the publication explicitly discusses the absence of the enslaved in painting before the early nineteenth century and highlights its purpose to exhibit how “cultural and social life had been saturated by the goods and products of colonial slavery.”[24]  With the use of paintings like Chardin’s The Smoker’s Case depicting something as seemingly simple as tobacco, with this new lens applied, we see clearly that it is laced with great historical significance (fig. 6). Vergès’ examples can be translated into a much broader field. Perhaps the way we might strive for a deeper understanding of these intricately woven narratives is to look more closely at the fabric from which they were fashioned.[25]  Much of what we have read and seen in the art world until the nineteenth century, perhaps even later with very few exceptions, has been dominated by white males with access.[26]  So, we meticulously study and look upon what they thought belonged in this narrative and these views began to solidify into some sort of pillar for the art historical canon. This is not to say that they are untrue, unreliable or fabricated in any way; but we must try to find ways to listen to the quieter voices that may not be heard beneath the boom of typical representations of thought in that time.

Pt II: Navigating Blackness - Exploring the Decolonization of Art History through the work of Kehinde Wiley.

Figure 6. Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, The Smoker’s Case, c. 1737. Oil on canvas, 12.5 x 16.5 in. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Courtesy Musée du Louvre.

These texts and programs have potentially cultivated alternative ways of thinking. There is more to the debate than “decolonizing.” Perhaps it is more about reconstructing the idea we have about colonization and not wishing for it to evolve, but to grow. The implications for evolution are those of natural selection or the fact that something which is not suitable for its current environment will die and those that are, survive. The implications of growth are somewhat less streamlined than “evolution” in this sense. It is important to keep in mind that very few aspects of this discipline go from one point to another in one way; that is the nature of theorising in art history. In agreement with Barringer’s statement, we cannot try to rewrite history by teaching it from a different perspective, as an attempt at gaining some sort scholarly of retribution.[27] It seems we must instead do something far more intricate, something much harder; that is, to accept that there are other branches that come from the theoretical “trunk” of the canonical art history we are more accustomed to.

Price, Grant and Vergès through presenting very similar conceptual ideas in different ways, invite us to think. In an age where we have such a wealth of resources at our fingertips, it might seem easy to assess what “decolonized” art history could be. To reiterate, this is more so about common thought, not the individual’s desire to wade through the comparatively limited scholarship on the subject matter. As art historians, it is somehow in our nature to not only physically look at an image as a whole, but to study the finest brushstrokes and muse on the theories surrounding works and movements. It is also within the right of those who chose to engage with art in spaces like the National Gallery, Tate, The Musée du Louvre and so on, to understand another narrative, which highlights how we may think about colonization. It is their right to be aware that Transatlantic trade, slavery, empire and colonization is as present in these spaces as the mortar between its bricks, and the grooves in paint created by a single brushstroke. Perhaps as we begin to lift away the wallpaper, and scrub at the layers of varnish, those bricks and paint will become more visible from a new perspective. The next chapter aims to see what happens when contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley bares those bricks and questions the stability of the foundations on which we stand in those spaces. We cannot continue to ignore the darkness of the bricks and the prominence of the mortar. 

[8] Lawrence E. Klein, “Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal 46, no. 4 (2002): 870-75.

[9] Françoise Vergès, “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,” Nka Issue 38-39 (2016): 8-13, accessed Dec 12, 2019,

[10] Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” Art History 43, no.1 (2020): 8-66.

[11] David H. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in eighteenth-century England (New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

[12] Shona N. Jackson, “Colonialism,” in Keywords for African American Studies, ed. Erica R. Edwards, Roderick A. Ferguson and Jeffrey Ogbar, (New York: NYU Press, 2018): 51-52.

[13] Jackson, “Colonialism,” 51.

[14] Douglas Fordham, “The Thoroughbred in British Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Horseracing, ed. Rebecca Cassidy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 26.

[15] Joseph Mayer, Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs, R.A. (Liverpool: Printed for J. Mayer by David Marples, 1879), 13.

[16] William Pick, An Authentic Historical Racing Calendar (Coppergate, W. Blanchard and Co.,1785), 117-118.

[17] Grant and Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” 10.

[18] Bailey is a British, Afro-Caribbean photographer and director of the International Curator’s Forum. Grant and Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” 9.

[19] Grant and Price “Decolonizing Art History,” 10.

[20] Grant and Price, “Decolonizing Art History,”11.

[21] ibid.,10.

[22] Vergès, “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,” 8.

[23] Grant and Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” 8.

[24] Vergès, “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,”11.

[25] Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[26] Thomas K. Nakayama and Judith N. Martin, Whiteness: The communication of social identity (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 1999).

[27] Grant and Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” 11.

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