The Tate Britain art gallery has reacted to public criticism of a mural inside its restaurant, The Rex Whistler, that features racist images. While the restaurant, which is named after the artist responsible for the work — The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, commissioned in 1926 — remains closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, an Instagram post last week by The White Pube pointed to a reference on the Tate website calling the restaurant the “most amusing room in Europe, owing to its specially commissioned mural.”
At the weekend, as first reported by the Guardian, Tate removed the “amusing” reference from the website, replacing it with contextual “interpretation text”, which a Tate spokesperson told Eater had featured on the wall of the restaurant before it closed, but had not been published on the website.
It now says of the work, which covers the walls of the restaurant:
“[...]Whistler depicts the enslavement of a Black child and the distress of his mother using highly stereotyped figures that were common at the time. In later scenes the boy runs behind a cart, attached to it by a chain around his neck. In the Great Wall of China scene, the Chinese figures are presented in costume that now suggests caricature. Whistler’s treatment of non-white figures reduces them to stereotypes. These depictions demonstrate attitudes to racial identity prevalent in Britain in the 1920s. The weakening of the British Empire around this time paradoxically prompted cultural expressions of the superiority of the ‘British race’.”
White Pube had pointed out that alongside an excerpt from a Guardian review of the restaurant, the page described the room as “the site of political and social intrigue over the decades.” White Pube commented: “How does this restaurant still exist? What interior decoration is THIS? How do these rich white people still choose to go there to drink from ‘the capital’s finest wine cellars’ with some choice slavery in the background? @Tate you are all deranged [?]”
To the extent that the dining room is inextricable from the mural, Labour MP and former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said on Twitter this week that Tate should move the restaurant. “I have eaten in Rex Whistler restaurant at Tate Britain,” she wrote. “Had no idea famous mural had repellent images of black slaves. Museum management need to move the restaurant. Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves @Tate #BlackLivesMatter.”
The Tate spokesperson told Eater: “Please note the restaurant remains closed in response to social distancing measures. The interpretation text...has been on the wall of the restaurant for some time, but was only added to the website last week, when the gallery reopened but the restaurant remained closed.”
In a statement sent to Eater, Tate said that it had been “open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery in the Rex Whistler mural,” and that it continues to “actively discuss how best to address the mural and we will keep the public updated over the coming months.”
This comes after the Mayor of London announced a public real review in June, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the capital. The Mayor said it was intended to “ensure the capital’s landmarks suitably reflect London’s achievements and diversity,” adding that “London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with more than 300 languages spoken every day, yet statues, plaques and street names largely reflect Victorian Britain — as highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter protests.”
“In the context of the Mayor of London’s recently announced public realm review, Tate’s establishment of a race equality taskforce, and the ongoing work of our Ethics Committee, we are continuing to actively discuss how best to address the mural and we will keep the public updated over the coming months,” Tate’s statement said.
Tate added it was now “important to acknowledge the presence of offensive and unacceptable content and its relationship to racist and imperialist attitudes in the 1920s and today.
“The interpretation text...addresses this directly as part of our ongoing work to confront such histories, a process that goes hand in hand with championing a more inclusive story of British art and identity today.”
No timeline has been given for the reopening of the restaurant and Tate did not respond directly to Eater’s question on whether it was actively considering the removal of the mural.