UK Parliament reviews art collection in light of BLM

Emilee Geist

The winds of change are blowing down the corridors of Westminster. A new review has highlighted links between former Members of the UK Parliament and the transatlantic slave trade in Africa and in British colonies. These ties are reflected in Westminster’s Parliamentary Art Collection, which researchers are reviewing in close […]

The winds of change are blowing down the corridors of Westminster. A new review has highlighted links between former Members of the UK Parliament and the transatlantic slave trade in Africa and in British colonies. These ties are reflected in Westminster’s Parliamentary Art Collection, which researchers are reviewing in close detail in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The collection of some 9,500 artworks documents the history and work of the UK Parliament and its members. “As many [parliamentarians] were wealthy landowners and businessmen, they or their families were often directly involved in, and profited from, the forced labour of enslaved peoples and the trading of those people. Today this is recognised as abhorrent,” the UK Parliament explains in a  news release.

The research highlighted just over 20 Members of Parliament (MPs) with ties with the slave trade, featuring in 189 works of art in the Parliamentary collection.

Key figures include Sir Robert Peel and William Gladstone, whose respective families profited from slavery. These former Prime Ministers were found to be portrayed dozens of times in the paintings and sculptures displayed in and around Westminster. 

In contrast, only 40 paintings were found to represent historical personalities linked to the abolitionist movement. 

The researchers also discovered satirical prints featuring racist imagery or stereotypes, such as “The Ghost of Christophe Ex-King of Hayti, appearing to the Un-Holy Alliance!!” by John Fairburn, depicting a slave in a loin-cloth. 

Not universally supported

“The intention of the Parliamentary Art Collection is not to venerate people who have supported and committed acts of atrocity, but to truthfully reflect the history of Parliament, our democracy and the people who played a part in it. The interpretation of these artworks is constantly under review,” the UK Parliament explains in its official news release. 

MPs decided to review the Westminster art collection in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw demonstrators take to the streets of British cities such as London, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds to show their support.

The Guardian reports that new artworks portraying female MPs, as well as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) parliamentarians are set to be commissioned. 

The initiative has not been met with enthusiasm by all members of the UK Parliament, however. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently commented that a reexamining the Parliamentary Art Collection should not be “overwhelmed by wokeism.” The term “woke” refers to being aware of and actively attentive to important issues, particularly in relation to racial and social justice.

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