Thinking Through Empire: London, Asia, Art, Worlds conference

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An event as part of the multi-part conference programme 'London, Asia, Art, Worlds'

About this event

Chair: Wenny Teo (Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

13.00-13.15 Welcome & Introductions

13.15-14.00 Keynote Paper: Rana Mitter (Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, and a Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford), ‘The Making, Breaking and Return of Empire – 1750 to 2021 and Beyond’

14.00-14.15 Discussion and Questions

14.15-14.30 Break

14.30-14.35 Welcome back/Introductions

14.35-14.50 Dipti Khera (Associate Professor, Art History and Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), ‘From Udaipur’s Streets to London’s Stephenson Way: Sensing Historical Moods between the Visual Worlds and Archived Words of Ghasi, Waugh, Finden, and Tod’

14.50-15.05 Toshio Watanabe (Professor for Japanese Arts and Cultural Heritage, University of East Anglia), ‘Watercolour Landscape of “Japan” in Victorian London, Meiji Tokyo and Colonial Taipei: Shifts in the Canon’

15.05-15.20 Gemma Sharpe (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Art History, City University of New York), ‘The Odder Story: Iqbal Geoffrey’s London’

15.20-15.45 Discussion & Questions

15.45-16.15 Optional breakout rooms for continued discussion

Paper Abstracts

Rana Mitter

We start with the presence of Mahatma Gandhi in London in 1931 for the Second Round Table talks on India’s future. The contrast between the voice of resistance, clad in khadi, and the pomp of the British imperial capital, has become a legendary moment, and in some ways has reified empire as a clash of cultures. However, this lecture aims both to recognize the conflict and violence inherent in empire while taking a longer view of the complexity of the imperial encounter – and pointing out that it lasts long after the formal end of empire itself. It will take in the following themes: industrialization as the cause of growing divergence between Asia and northwest Europe; the globalization of thought as ‘circuits of knowledge’ started to converge, with Asian worldviews being absorbed but also hybridized into a new ‘global modern’; the growth of a new economic consensus in which the power of empire was made to seem normal and indeed moral; the growing power of technology as a means both to link peoples and to exacerbate power imbalances; and the power of local and global conflict to destroy the assumptions of empire beyond repair. We return to London 1931 and look forward to the decades that followed, and end with reflection: how many of the factors that shaped an empire that supposedly ended half a century or more ago are still with us now? And how far should we understand the current great power disputes between the west and Asia as a new argument about empire?

Dipti Khera

Moods inflected the representation of lands and architecture in profound and intermedial ways across eighteenth-century South Asia and Britain. In charting the aesthetic, epistemic, and political power of the 'moods of a place,' the pictorial experimentations and innovations that take form in the city of Udaipur emerge as a tour de force. The artist Ghasi crosses courtly and colonial worlds. As a court artist for Udaipur kings Bhim Singh and Jawan Singh, Ghasi created large-scale artworks featuring moods of plentitude, pleasure, and piousness of urban places and lush frontiers. As the 'native' artist for the British colonial agent James Tod, who was also the first librarian of London's Royal Asiatic Society, he documented numerous temples. Ghasi's drawings, the watercolors by Patrick Waugh, who also traveled with Tod in Rajasthan, and the plates of the engraver Edward Finden, who worked with these artists' illustrations in London, formed Tod's sources for writing the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (182932). When we examine this corpus of topographical images – that sought to affect urbane audiences in deeply emotive ways – against the long history of painted lands, Ghasi's artworks create and confront the worlds and archives critical for decolonizing art histories and aesthetics.

Toshio Watanabe

During the late nineteenth century a number of British watercolour artists visited Japan to paint Japanese landscapes for selling them back in London. Most of these showed little impact of Japanese art. Within Japonisme studies, the popularity of this particular genre of naturalistic depiction of Japanese landscape in watercolour has not received its due attention, unlike the Yokohama photography, covering a similar ground.

In Tokyo, exhibitions by these British artists created a huge impact on some of the Japanese artists, some even abandoning oil and figure painting in favour of plein air watercolour landscape. This led to the establishment of the Japanese Watercolour Movement, which in my view established a new third force in modern Japanese painting creating a shift in its canon.

This paper will focus on two of this movement’s main contributions. First, its enthusiastic proselytising of British watercolours. Their heroes were Turner and Ruskin and for them the capital of western art was not Paris but London. The second significance is that it was instrumental in modernizing the art of painting in Taiwan, chiefly through the Japanese watercolour artist Ishikawa Kin’ichirō’s teaching in Taipei. Both Ishikawa, a great devotee of the British watercolour, and his Taiwanese students painted the colonial ‘Japanese’ landscape of Taiwan, thus showing much refracted shifts in the canon.

Gemma Sharpe

In April 1969, The New York Times published a report on Britain’s Black and Asian community in the wake of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The report included statements from artist-lawyer Iqbal Geoffrey (b. Chiniot, 1939–), recently arrived in London from the U.S. ‘I have a claim on England, not on America,’ Geoffrey stated in the article. ‘I was born British before I was Pakistani.’ Yet by late 1970 Geoffrey was back in the U.S. insisting on his status as American artist of note. This paper explores Geoffrey’s 1968–69 sojourn in London – one of three extended visits to the city over his career. It explains the circumstances that brought him to the city and detangles his complex international itinerary along with his political – and legal – claim to Britishness and British institutions including the Tate, the National Gallery, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. Geoffrey’s legacy has been neglected and misunderstood; writing in The Other Story catalogue, Rasheed Araeen presents Geoffrey as a trickster who delights in conflict and sabotaging the pretentions of art. This paper argues that Geoffrey’s practice instead offers a deeply strategic theorization of avant garde practice, postcolonial belonging, and decolonial critique that remains not only relevant but applicable to the contemporary moment.

Image caption: Attributed to Ghasi, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, Governor-General of India receiving Maharana Jawan Singh of Udaipur at the Ajmer Durbar, held on February 8, 1832, c. 1832, opaque watercolour, gold and silver on cloth, 189 × 128 cm. Collection Brooklyn Museum (2002.34). Digital image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

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Organiser of Thinking Through Empire: London, Asia, Art, Worlds conference

The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art is an educational charity committed to promoting original, world-class research into the history of British art and architecture of all periods. We collaborate closely with the Yale Center for British Art, and are part of Yale University

The Paul Mellon Centre is aware of its obligations under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and is committed to processing your data securely and transparently.

For more information on how the Centre processes personal information see our privacy policy.

For more information on Zoom’s compliance with EU GDPR see:

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