An Artist’s Response to a Racist Mural Walks a Fine Line

For nearly 100 years, a 55-foot-long mural was the backdrop to a high-class restaurant at Tate Britain. As diners quaffed fine wine and ate expensive dishes, they could glance at the painting by Rex Whistler depicting a hunting party riding through a fantastical landscape.

Few visitors to the London art museum appeared to notice two small sections of Whistler’s scene, each taking up just a few inches: one depicting a white woman, wearing a billowing dress and bonnet, dragging a Black boy by a rope, as the boy’s unclothed, terrified mother watches from a tree; the other showing the same boy, shackled by a collar, running behind a cart.

It was only in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, that antiracism campaigners highlighted those sections on social media and demanded the mural’s removal. Soon, Tate shuttered the restaurant, and administrators began agonizing over what to do about the painting, titled “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats.”

On Tuesday, their solution went on display when Tate Britain reopened the ornate room containing the work. Rather than diners, the mural now surrounds a large video work by the Black British artist Keith Piper that aims to highlight and explain Whistler’s racist imagery. Chloe Hodge, the exhibit’s curator, said Piper’s work would be on display for around a year.

With this new presentation, Tate Britain is trying to balance the demands of activists, who want offensive artworks removed from view, and conservative politicians and art enthusiasts, many of whom want museums to avoid any hint of “woke” posturing. But in steering a middle course between those positions, Piper said, he knew that he and the museum could annoy both sides.

“A lot of people said this is a poisoned chalice,” Piper said.

Keith Piper’s piece directly addresses the racist imagery in Whistler’s mural, and views in through a critical and historical lens.Credit…Kemka Ajoku for The New York Times

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