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Entangled Pasts at the Royal Academy reviews: what the critics say

Entangled Pasts is the latest big blockbuster at London’s Royal Academy (RA).


But this one is being seen as particularly important as it’s billed as the first time the prestigious institution has confronted its colonial history head-on in an art exhibition.


And they’ve done it through a very ambitious show too — the scale is huge.


Over 100 major contemporary and historic artworks are brought together in a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives around empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism.


It spans over 250 years, from the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 to the present day. Over 50 artists are included.


But what do the reviews say about this landmark RA exhibition? Well, art critics were somewhat divided.


Laura Cumming at the Observer newspaper absolutely loved it. Her five-star smash review calls it “the most radical show in the RA’s history” and its most dramatic and enthralling. Reviews don’t really tend to get much better.


A portrait bust in all black of a man looking off to the side
Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, 1758 Black stone (pietra di paragone) on a yellow Siena marble socle, 69.9 x 50.2 x 26.7 cm The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

“Each gallery has a different atmosphere and theme, choreographed for constant syncopation” she says. Cumming particularly loved the very first gallery visitors enter. “The opening room stuns” she says. “A whole gallery of Black subjects: this has never happened at the Royal Academy before.”


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She also praises how the art speaks for itself, rather than the wall texts. “This is creative, absorbing and highly intelligent” curation where “ideas embodied through art itself rather than via the deadening wall texts that instruct us round similar shows.”


Another critic which loved the exhibition was Laura Gascoigne at the Spectator. She admits that she was "rather dreading this show, which sounded from the pre-publicity like a hollow exercise."


But Gascoigne says that before she even entered the London museum building she was won over. Tavares Strachan’s life-sized The First Supper (Galaxy Black) is installed in the Royal Academy's courtyard for the duration of the Entangled Pasts exhibitions, and she says this "riotous gathering of black luminaries in bronze and gilt" made her realise her apprehension was unfounded.


A sculpture featuring seated black figures at a table in front of the classical facade of the Royal Academy
Tavares Strachan’s The First Supper being installed at the Royal Academy. Photo: maxwell museums

Especially as Strachan's huge installation "upstaged" the "posturing" Sir Joshua Reynolds sculpture — the RA's first President — that is standing nearby. This dialogue of just two works sets the tone for the whole show: "It’s not about raking over the past: it’s about colonialism, but also about change" she concludes.


There were similar sentiments from Jackie Wullschläger in the Financial Times. "Triumphant" and "surprising" is her verdict, and that this show "stages several brilliant spectacles within an exhibition that offers no overarching argument as it explores, rather randomly, black experience in contemporary art."


Wullschläger does offer some criticism, especially around some of the weaker artworks on display. "The exhibition utterly loses traction when, too often, the RA dredges from its storehouse banalities" she says. Frank Dicksee’s Startled (1892) and Bharti Parmar’s holes on white paper called Cotton Plant Morphology, Efficient pruning ensured maximum yield on slave plantations (2021) are offered as examples."These works’ only claim is as anti-racist rhetoric, or historic racism...art isn’t sociology" Wullschläger says.


Some critics were liked the exhibition even less.


Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph was unimpressed. "A mess: meandering, full of waffle, occasionally even boring" was his rather damning review. He criticises the focus on the RA's own ties to British colonialism which he says results in an "intermittently flat and inward-looking experience, low on visual flair."


The wall-texts also come in for criticism. "Overly academic" and a "smack of university textbooks" is his verdict.


But, Sooke says there are positives, and some artworks save the day. These include Frank Bowling’s abstract painting Middle Passage — "simultaneously spectacular and anguished" — and Lubaina Himid’s 100-strong throng of colourful cut-out characters Naming the Money, one of a number of "unforgettable" pieces shown in the later galleries.


A group of cut-out figures in colourful costumes displayed in a plain gallery setting
Lubaina Himid RA, Naming the Money, 2004. © Lubaina Himid. Image courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and National Museums, Liverpool. © Spike Island, Bristol. Photo: Stuart Whipps

Equally the Times Chief Art Critic thought the show was poor. Laura Freeman's review says this is "a show suffering an identity crisis."


Like Sooke, she thinks there are some star artworks on show, including Akua’s Surviving Children (1996) by El Anatsui which she thinks will linger in the memory long after a visitor leaves, unlike other forgettable aspects of the show.


Just two-stars were awarded to the show by Freeman, as she thinks that it "is all over the place."


Her ultimate verdict? "It’s a muddle — and a maddening one at that."


Entangled Pasts, 1768–now | Art, Colonialism and Change is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 28 April 2024.

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