Preview: ‘Entangled Pasts, 1768–Now’ At The Royal Academy

By Ed Vaizey

6 months ago

Entangled Pasts, 1768–Now runs 3 February–28 April 2024

The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition is an important conversation starter, says Ed Vaizey.

Entangled Pasts, 1768–Now: Art, Colonialism & Change

An artwork on display as part of Entangled Pasts

Kara Walker Hon RA, no world, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010
Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite and drypoint on paper, 68.6 x 99.1 cm
British Museum, London
© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers

One of the biggest issues dominating the arts today are the so-called culture wars. Whether it is toppling statues or long and involved explanatory notes at an exhibition, everyone is involved, and everyone has a strong view.

When I was Culture Minister almost a decade ago, these issues were rarely debated. This is to an extent a recent American import. While I served in government I did however get involved in the issue of diversity. I was awestruck one evening watching Lenny Henry perform Shakespeare, and seeing how different the audience was. I realised that we needed to do more to open up mainstream arts to different communities. We made progress, even seeing Britain’s first all-Black orchestra, Chineke, established.

At their best, exhibitions and performances simply provide a new context in which we can appreciate art that we already know and value. In this sense, they are helping transform our views on art, or at least flesh them out.

Portrait of a Man, thought to have been painted by Francis Barber

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, c. 1770
Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 63.8 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston
Photo © Hickey-Robertson, Houston

The Royal Academy of Arts’ new exhibition, Entangled Pasts, does just that. It follows a chronology from the founding of the RA (1768) to the present day, and focuses on empire, slavery, resistance and abolition, as well as exploring the RA’s own links to colonialism. It brings together over 100 major contemporary and historic works by around 50 artists connected to the RA to explore these ideas. These artists include well-known contemporary artists like Sonia Boyce, Frank Bowling, John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien, alongside works by artists from the past 250 years including Joshua Reynolds, JMW Turner and John Singleton Copley.

The exhibition is set in the main galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts, where visitors can experience large-scale works including the life-size painted cut-out figures of Lubaina Himid’s installation Naming the Money, and Hew Locke’s Armada, a flotilla of ‘votive boats’ recalling different periods and places. Visitors can also view powerful paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings and prints by El Anatsui, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Shahzia Sikander, Mohini Chandra and Betye Saar.

The exhibition is a powerful conversation about the past and present, and how art can help us set a new course for the future.

A painting of figures on a ship

John Singleton Copley RA, Watson and the Shark, 1778
Oil on canvas, 183.5 x 229.6 cm
Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston
Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change runs 3 February–28 April 2024 at the Royal Academy of Arts. Tickets are £22 per person and can be booked at

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

Featured image: Installation view of the ‘Navigation Charts’ exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, 2017, showing 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