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Entangled Pasts

Royal Academy of Arts, London (3 February–28 April 2024)   

Review by Ronan McKenzie


There is a large billboard in Hackney, East London, advertising ‘Entangled Pasts’, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Bright orange and eye-catching, alongside a list of names of prominent artists with reputations that may entice you to pay the £22 pounds admission fee for this vaguely titled exhibition, the advert features a quote from Lubaina Himid; an artist incredibly well respected and admired, a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement, a source of reason and leader of action, someone to be listened to. The quote reads: ‘It’s telling the story of how we all contributed to the complicated place that we’re in now’.

Is it though?

The last time we heard the word ‘entangled’ thrown around was when Jada Pinkett Smith brought herself to her Red Table in 2020, to admit to her relationship with August Alsina. Will Smith laughed, awkwardly. At another table, or Zoom call in 2021, Axel Ruger, Andrea Tarsia and Adrian Locke initiated the idea of an exhibition that has become ‘Entangled Pasts’. There may have been someone at that table that laughed awkwardly, perhaps about the fact that The Royal Academy was to exhibit a major exhibition of Black artists from the American South – Souls Grown Deep Like Rivers (2023) – before addressing their relationship to Black artists from the British all-over. Yet, the avoidance of responsibility in using the word ‘entangled’ in the title of this exhibition, which by definition is ‘cause to become twisted together with or get caught in’, seems to excuse The Royal Academy’s active role in upholding systems that kept the oppressed down.

Himid’s phrase ‘we all contributed’ implies a sort of equality in the contributions from those who are being referred to. It hints that the responsibility for actions that have led to ‘the complicated place that we’re in now’ has been taken by the perpetrators. It implies that artists like Himid have contributed to the complication. However, without specifying exactly what complication Himid is referring to, the advertisement could be read as equalising the malicious intention of those who derived their wealth or profiteered from the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation with those who, through no choice or action of their own, became children of an empire which sought to exploit and rupture their lives and the lives of those who followed them.

The lack of context for this quote within the promotion of the exhibition creates a feeling of co-signature; the recognisable twang of 2020/2021’s influx of diversity initiatives within workplaces, which burdened black employees with the responsibility of becoming spokespeople and doing tasks way out of their jurisdictions, to create the optics of inclusive workplaces or appropriate brand messaging.

Dorothy Price and Sarah Lea note in their exhibition introduction: ‘The global pandemic of 2020 made manifest the stark injustices of dominant political systems embedded in colonial matrices of economic power that continue to affect Black and Brown bodies’. Again, a familiar feeling; Black people being referred to not as people, which may evoke empathy, but bodies, like commodified, apathetic beings. It is surprising that in a clearly intentional effort to right the wrongdoings of the past, the language used to refer to the black people – which implies one’s position in relation to them – hasn’t changed with it.

It is interesting to choose an African American artist’s work as the lead image for an exhibition exploring Britain’s relationship to art and history. The piece ‘no world’ from the series ‘An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters’ will be most viewers’ first impression of the show. The monochrome etching is moody and subtle and it is incredibly difficult for one’s interpretation and response to not be heavily influenced by one’s own experience and relationship to the scene depicted, or what it brings to mind. In simply attending this exhibition, the viewer becomes part of this collective attempt to detangle centuries of power imbalance and exploitation.

Hundreds of years are summarised in a hundred pieces of artwork, many with clumsy or ignorant accompanying captions, haphazardly scattered across dark red red walls, between clear white walls, beyond blood red curtains. One of these captions is placed beside Margaret Burroughs’ Black Venus (1957), which references her choice to cite Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1484-86): ‘I saw a parallel between the fantasy he depicted and the very reality of Black American Womanhood.’ The artist explains that: ‘slave masters selected the most beautiful of the Virgin Black slave women for their own personal use. And yet these women survived to become mothers of a nation.’ As a viewer of the exhibition with the small exhibition guide that is handed out on entry, the context of the origin of the quote and further comment on the work aren’t available, yet the work is placed within the context of powerful dreamlike and fantasy artworks. Unlike the full exhibition catalogue, which offers important context, the quote on the wall could be understood to romanticise the traumas of the violent abuse against slave women, celebrating the resilience and strength needed for survival.

The Royal Academy’s attempt at redemption and re-education lies tangled in the bedsheets of history it chose to ignore, until its future and fate became reliant on owning up to its past.


Ronan Mckenzie is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes Curation, Design and Image Making. Alongside creating still and moving image works for titles and brands, including The New York Times, Vogue, Glossier and Sunday Times Style, Mckenzie has curated exhibitions and programming for Carl Freedman Gallery, Gucci, The Royal Academy, WePresent, The Victoria and Albert Museum and Somerset House. In addition to founding gallery HOME (2020-2023), and brand, SELASI, Mckenzie is currently working on a number of exciting projects.