In the latest controversy involving Rex Whistler’s 1927 mural “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” installed at the former restaurant of the Tate Britain in London, the museum is seeking an artist to “critically engage” with the painting’s racist content. Last week, the institution announced plans to commission a contemporary artist to create a new, site-specific installation in the space — not to replace the disgraced work, but to ostensibly contextualize its imagery.
Whistler’s floor-to-ceiling mural depicts a hunting party in search of exotic game. In one section, a white woman can be seen dragging an enslaved Black boy by a rope. In another, the same boy is shown bound by a collar and running after a horse-drawn cart. The work also contains caricatured renderings of Chinese figures.
In 2018, in response to complaints, the museum added a wall label acknowledging the mural’s racist content. But demands for the painting’s removal grew louder in the summer of 2020, amid worldwide protests against anti-Black violence and a reckoning with the legacy of enslavement. That August, Tate Britain removed a description on its website calling the restaurant “the most amusing room in Europe”; four months later, members of Tate’s ethics committee said they “were unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive,” and the space was closed as a restaurant.
A new commission to be exhibited alongside the mural will “explore the artist’s life and career, responses to the work over time, and connections to wider historical contexts,” Tate Britain said in a statement. The decision to commission an artwork was made following a series of discussions with art historians, artists, and civic representatives.
Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford and a co-chair of the discussions, said the conversations were “filled with good-natured but deep disagreement.”
“Would keeping the mural open to the public accentuate its power? Would shutting it off risk doing the same? Could the space be used by artists of colour as a creative site of reappropriation? Or would this unfairly burden them with a problem produced by a historically white institution?” Srinivasan said in the museum’s statement. “One of the few points of consensus was that Tate had to take ownership of its history, and that whatever decision was made had to be an invitation to a broader conversation, not the end of one.”
For some, the museum’s most recent strategy to address Whistler’s problematic composition leaves much to be desired. Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad of the White Pube, a collaborative arts writing platform that has been outspoken in its condemnation of the mural, said the move “reveals a defence of racism that is not really a surprise given Tate’s beginnings.”
“The mural does not need to be kept to be remembered; the mural certainly does not need to be continuously restored with millions of pounds worth of funding in order for us to discuss the problems within its imagery,” de la Puente and Muhammad told Hyperallergic.
“We can still talk about the horrible things it stands for even after it is destroyed, and destruction isn’t an end point,” they added. “So it should go. Tate should stop defending it.”
Responding to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for Tate said that “formal discussions will take place in the coming months,” and added that the room containing the mural is scheduled to reopen to the public next winter.