Artist and academic Keith Piper is renowned for his artistic responses to specific historical relationships and geographical sites.
Now the MDX fine art associate professor will create a new work to be shown alongside and in dialogue with Rex Whistler’s mural at Tate Britain.
The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats tells the story of an imagined hunting expedition involving the Duke of Epicurania.
It was commissioned by Tate director Charles Aitken for the opening of the gallery’s restaurant in 1927.
Described by Tate’s ethics committee as “offensive” in 2019, the imagery includes a depiction of enslaved black children who are being led on a leash.
The restaurant closed at the start of the pandemic but will re-open as a display space later this year.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Piper said taking on such a commission “will always prove fraught”, adding, “the mural offends our contemporary sensibilities on many levels but is at the same time part of the physical fabric of a National Museum, and as such is under the protective umbrella of ‘heritage’.”
The artist says that when responding to historic pieces, he is an advocate for retention and scrutiny rather than erasure, which allows people to forget.
“I would rather subject historical objects to detailed examination to better understand the epoch in which they were produced and the multiple and complex ways in which they impact the present,” he said.
As a studio based Academic at MDX, engaging students in rigorous critique of their work is key to Piper’s teaching approach.
When his research on Rex Whistler revealed that he was just 20-years-old and a Fine Art student at the Slade School of Art when he was awarded the commission in the spring of 1926, Piper began to picture the young man being ‘grilled’ by a contemporary academic about his mural as a way of subjecting its development and problematic content to detailed scrutiny.
He said: “This imagined dramatic encounter, played out in the form a dialogue between two actors would take its title from the formal vocal examination of a student often undertaken within Academia, the ‘Viva Voce’.
“This creative model would excavate the complexities of the mural, in particular its racist content.
"It allows an imagined ‘cross-questioning’ of Whistler around the images of black people that he would have encountered and been influenced by as a young man growing up in the interwar years and how these impacted his practice.”
Piper’s developing work is currently in production and will be unveiled in autumn 2023.
It will exist as a multi-channel video installation, situated in what is still known as the ‘Rex Whistler Room’ in the Tate Britain featuring actors engaged in an imagined ‘Viva Voca’ in which the work, its influences and implications will be scrutinised.
Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, said: “Keith Piper’s work has always reflected his deep interest in important but overlooked histories, in particular a longstanding engagement with issues of race and the legacies of empire.
“Piper’s unique voice will bring a vital new perspective to the room, juxtaposing past and present in an ongoing conversation, as we often seek to do in Tate Britain’s programme today.”
Keith was born in Malta, to parents of African-Caribbean heritage. His father, from Antigua, had moved to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s.
He rose to prominence in the Eighties after being the founder member of the BLK Art Group and has established himself with his artistic responses to specific historical relationships and geographical sites.
He has staged solo exhibitions at museums and galleries across the UK, Europe and USA and his work ranges from painting and photography to video and digital media.