The Royal Academy of Arts presents Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change, an ambitious exhibition bringing together over 100 major contemporary and historic artworks as part of a conversation about art and its role in shaping narratives around empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism. Spanning over 250 years, from the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 to the present and informed by the RA’s ongoing research into its links with colonialism, the exhibition engages over 50 artists connected to the institution to explore the relationship between art and our understanding of the past.

The exhibition was programmed in 2021 in response to the urgent public debates about therelationship between artistic representation and imperial histories. These debates were prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. Additionally, the RA’s Summer Exhibition 2021, coordinated by Yinka Shonibare with the theme ‘Reclaiming Magic’, aimed to “transcend the Western canon which formed the foundations of the Royal Academy”. Shonibare’s strong curatorial statement inspired the RA to organise an exhibition that looks outwards, creating links with people and places around the globe, with a strong emphasis on British artists of the African, Caribbean and Indian diasporas, for whom an exploration of colonialism and its legacies has been fundamental.

Highlights include historic portraits such as Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of a Man, probably FrancisBarber, c.1770 (The Menil Collection, Houston) and Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho, 1768 (The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which is shown alongside contemporary portraiture including Kerry James Marshall Hon RA’s Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776, 2007 (Paul & De Gray) and Sonia Boyce’s Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great, 1986 (Arts Council Collection, London). Genre painting and sculpture including Johan Zoffany RA’s The Family of Sir William Young, 1767- 69 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man, 1758 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) convey the construction and upholding of racial hierarchies, while John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, 1778 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), an allegory of transatlantic politics, is amongst work that demonstrates that empire was a crucial subject for artists and viewers. This contemporary history painting caused a sensation when a version of it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 and has not been shown outside Boston since 1993.

Entangled Pasts explores how deeply the effects of colonialism have permeated the RA and itshistory, while also looking forward, inviting viewers to consider how conversations around these legacies might unfold in the future. The exhibition, together with the catalogue, talks, events and online content, is a forum for acknowledgment, reflection and debate, taking the next step towards necessary change.

Dates: Saturday 3 February 2024 – Sunday 28 April 2024
10am – 6pm Tuesday to Sunday
10am – 9pm Friday

Tickets can be booked in advance online ( or over the phone (020 7300 8090).

Written by Nura Arooj