Tate, the body the manages both Tate Britain and its sister museum Tate Modern, said it would ask an artist to respond to a racist mural in the former museum’s restaurant using a site-specific installation. The announcement suggests that Tate won’t remove portions of the controversial painting by Rex Whistler, which an ethics committee with the museum network had previously deemed “offensive.”
“Tate is responsible for the mural as a work of art, so the new approach needed to create an appropriate and inclusive context for it to be viewed and allow this context to evolve over time as needed,” Tate said in a statement released on Wednesday.
In the 1920s, Whistler was commissioned by Tate Britain to paint a mural in the museum’s restaurant. The resulting 55-foot-long mural, The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, depicts a hunting party chasing after exotic foods. Certain sections show enchained Black slave children that are leashed to a cart and an aristocratic-looking white woman.
Since the controversy over the mural began in the summer of 2020, many have suggested these sections of the work be destroyed or somehow removed. The painting is protected by British heritage laws that protect the mural from being altered, however. For a while, the mural was kept off view because the Tate Britain’s restaurants were closed as a result of the pandemic.
In 2020, the museum network organized a committee made of five up of co-chairs to discuss how best to address the issue of the mural. Opinions were divided.
“Conversations about the mural were open, rigorous, and filled with good-natured but deep disagreement,” said Amia Srinivasan, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, University of Oxford, and a co-chair of the Rex Whistler Mural Discussions, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Among the questions mulled by that committee, Srinivasan said, were: “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?”
In the end, the committee decided that it would commission an artist to create an installation in the same room as the Whistler mural. “This new work will be exhibited alongside and in dialogue with the mural, reframing the way the space is experienced,” Tate said.
Additionally, the mural will be further contextualized with a new display that includes information about the artist, the mural’s wider context, and its reception at various points in history. The Tate expects to announce the commissioned artist shortly and to open the room with the Whistler mural during the winter of next year.