In 2020, Tate Britain in London closed its restaurant after many claimed that a 100-year-old painting adorning its walls contained overt racist imagery. This week, the museum announced that the space will reopen with the mural intact, but accompanied by a new artwork by British artist Keith Piper that responds to its controversy.
The latest reopening date provided by Tate is fall 2023. The space will no longer serve as the museum’s restaurant.
The mural, entitled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, was painted in 1927 by the British painter Rex Whistler. It forms the entire interior of the restaurant, and tells the story of a fanciful hunting trip through enchanted lands in search of exotic meats.
The controversy surrounded two vignettes that a Tate statement described as “derogatory and distressing imagery of a Black child being kidnapped from his mother and enslaved, and caricatures of Chinese figures.” The imagery seemingly passed unnoticed until 2018, when a patron raised complaints with the museum. In response, Tate provided an interpretive text that attempted to explain the historical context of Whistler’s design.
Two years later, following further protests, Tate trustees announced that the space would no longer serve as a restaurant and that the museum’s response “has not been adequate.” However, they also stated that the mural is “a work of art in the care of trustees and that it should not be altered or removed.”
The restaurant is part of a Grade I-listed structure, meaning that under British law it cannot be demolished or altered without special permission.
In February 2022, Tate announced that as a solution to the dilemma, an artist would be commissioned to create a “site-specific installation” to the mural. The new work “will be exhibited alongside and in dialogue with the mural, reframing the way the space is experienced,” Tate said in a statement, adding that it will also be paired with “new interpretative material, which will critically engage with the mural’s history and content, including its racist imagery”.
Piper is of African-Caribbean heritage and in his decades-long practice spanning photography, painting, and video, he has interrogated Britain’s social and political legacies. He was a founding member of the pioneering BLK Art Group, a collective of Black British art students that formed in England’s West Midlands in 1979. The children of Caribbean migrants, they encouraged both white and Black artists to deepen their social consciousness. Piper is currently an educator in the art department of London’s Middlesex University.
Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, said in a statement, “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.”