Painting The Map Pink

Colonel TE Lawrence (1919) by Augustus John OM, oil paint on canvas, 800 x 597 mm, Tate

By Lucien de Guise

You do not hear the word ‘empire’ very often these days. Even the latest Star Wars epic has introduced something called the First Order rather than the bad old Empire. The empire in the exhibition Artist and Empire is the one that Britain used to run, and it’s not an institution often associated with art.

At Tate Britain they have been making amends for some of the shortcomings of the former British Empire by giving a comprehensive and unusually captivating view of an episode in history that involved at least some of the Islamic world. Not that the empire builders of the time necessarily made much of a distinction between Islamic and any other type of indigenous practice.

The first marvel of this show is that not all the contents are taken too seriously. It is not a visit to the temple of fine art. There is some material on view that seems so overblown, it is hard to see how the empire had any credibility at all. One painting of an Amazon of a woman taking a tiger to task (as a symbol of the Indian Mutiny) is so outlandish to modern eyes, it is a blessing for art historians that it had an opportunity to emerge from whatever storeroom of propaganda art it had lain in. The Mutiny, of course, was one of those rare episodes in British history where indifference to both Muslims and Hindus led to a very bloody incident. It was felt more deeply than most of Britain’s actions. The French tended to ride roughshod, literally, over local sensibilities in North Africa and the Middle East. Rather than just failing to remove their footwear upon entering a mosque, they might make a grand and sacrilegious entrance on a horse.

From Britannia at her most ridiculous there are other images that show a surprisingly sensitive side to an institution that is generally seen as rigid in its aims. It is refreshing that the ‘Muslim-ness’ of the contents is not overstated by the curators, who would be seeing the world through the contemporary prism that seeks to make Muslims exceptional among religious adherents.

Sometimes the propaganda war was fought to convince the locals of the benefits of Britishness, rather than to impress those back home. Best of all are the examples of local art from places that had a quite different vision from Britannia and her sword of justice. It has to be said that these were rarely Muslim strongholds.

The Islamic world was a small part of the empire ‘on which the sun never set’, in comparison with the lands that France ended up with. The sheer range of locations makes for fascinating viewing. There is no corner of the world that is not represented, and today all of those locations might be counted as at least partly Islamic. The most eye-opening items are those created by indigenous peoples. The charm and expressiveness of West African woodcarvings is disarming. There are also some of the most famous of all African art items on display – the Benin bronzes, which are not from the Muslim part of what is now Nigeria.

So great is the reverence for these bold works of the expert metalworker, it is a shame that attention has been diverted from works in wood that are stunning in effect. The Nigerian carvings of members of the British royal family are masterworks. Never have Queen Victoria or Edward VIII looked like this. One only wishes that Mrs Simpson could also have been recorded with this Afro-centric eye.

Although the religion of the carvers is not known, they are unlikely to have been Muslims. It is in situations such as this that the supposed Islamic proscription on figural imagery is mostly true, although there are exceptions in this exhibition, such as a Hausa panel from circa 1940 depicting colonial scenes. There are planes, lorries, motorbikes and plenty of people. There is even a horse, and it is nowhere near a mosque. As the artist is, as usual, anonymous, it is impossible to know his religious inclinations but from this region he is bound to have been a Muslim and depicts his fellow believers in this panel. One again, the curators’ concern is not religious affiliation but the relationship between Brits and everyone else. During World War II, at least, it seems as if the Hausa received treatment bordering on respectful from their British comrades in arms.

The countless examples that contradict the disapproval of figural imagery tend to have been made for Muslim ruling elites; this exhibition is more about the equivalent of ‘street art’ or items made for the colonial oppressors. It is a show with a sense of fun as well as what some critics have called ‘hand wringing’. The question of slavery is, for once, not the central issue, and fingers are not pointed at the mainly Muslim traders who facilitated the first stage of the operation in Africa. When the issue of slavery does turn up, there is an occasionally refreshing look at the situation, such as the Barbadian former slave who became a slave owner herself, as well as being a successful hotelier.

This is a show with little bits of everything in it. One ingredient in short supply is contemporary art by Muslim artists of the Commonwealth. The overwhelming majority are from other backgrounds. Rather than being a selective process of winnowing out the Muslims, it is more a reflection of how art in most of Islam does not fit neatly into contemporary art parameters.

Neither does art of the Islamic past tend to show up in an exhibition such as this, which tries to give visual expression to a certain chapter in world history. When most Islamic art is ‘decorative’ and practical, it will tend not to reveal much about colonial dynamics. There is nothing from the Islamic world that can be put in the same category as a rarely seen masterwork that should stop visitors in their tracks, if they actually notice it. The object is a small 19th-century carving by an indigenous Canadian artist. Hewn from a black stone called argillite, it is described simply as ‘Figure of a European’. The subject matter, however, is of almost secondary importance to the stone itself, which is one of the most marvellously oily-looking substances I have ever seen. It breathes life, in the same way that the anonymous subject does.

There are famous works as well, and they tend to show the Islamic world through the eyes of everyone but Muslims. These include one of the best-known images created by England’s foremost animal artist, which makes him a very prominent painter indeed. George Stubbs’ 1764 work, titled A Cheetah and Stag with Two Indian Attendants, will be familiar to countless viewers who probably imagine the cheetah to be another noble beast from the same stable as Stubbs’ racehorses. In fact the story is a bit different from expected. The cheetah is actually being persuaded by its native handlers to do some hunting in an English setting. The big cat is unwilling, perhaps scared, and generally not as intimidating as might be imagined. Recent research reveals some information about the handlers of the hesitant cheetah. One was described in 1765 as ‘a brother Mahometan’.

There are surprises throughout the exhibition. Even a painting as superficially imperialistic as the renowned image of Lawrence of Arabia by Augustus John, 1919, turns out to have a twin: this time the Emir Feisal who worked closely with the British and lost his throne to the current rulers of Saudi Arabia. There is a nobility in Feisal’s face that speaks of the tragedies that would befall his family. The robes and dagger that Colonel TE Lawrence wears in the portrait are highly topical, being the very items that the British government is now trying to prevent being exported after they were recently sold at auction.

Many of the points of contact on display at Tate Britain relate to conflict. So not that much has changed in the West’s perceptions of the Islamic world. One of the most recognisable images of all, apart from the rather jaunty view of Lawrence ‘going native’, is the demise of General George Gordon. Seen as a saint by many, he was described by Lytton Strachey in strangely modern terms as ‘… a little off his head, perhaps though a hero’. He was not viewed by his Sudanese opponents as being saintly. These jihadis, which is what they truly were, put Gordon’s head on a spear after he had defied them on the steps of the Council Chamber in Khartoum. The influential and accurate view painted by George William Joy in 1893 is remarkable. Gordon looks every bit as close to being Jesus Christ as the American poet John Greenleaf described him as being. And the Muslim mob are as chaotic and as filled with blood lust as any sensationalist journalist might describe them as being today.

Another even more catastrophic episode between Britain and Muslim forces is recorded in a powerful work by a Victorian female artist. Elizabeth Butler’s The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842 was painted in 1879, but expresses the pathos of the sole survivor of a military expedition that started with 18,000 men. It was one of the worst defeats ever endured by the empire, admirably depicted by an artist whose sympathies were for humanity rather than British forces.

A more partial approach was taken by Robert Home in 1793, whose painting The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis was executed a year after the hostages were handed over. Using children in this manner would be discouraged now, but they were a useful tool in the war against South India’s most successful Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan. All ended badly for the Tiger of Mysore, but at least his hostage sons appear to have been well treated in captivity.

There are paintings by Muslim artists in the exhibition, and most of them come back to military matters. One of the few that takes a less confrontational view of life is by an unknown Mughal artist of Lucknow. His miniature painting of Haji Nasir Listening to a Prince Reading shows everything that the British Empire was not really about. It is not trade or conquest or engineering works. The subject is a prince and a saintly figure (not of the Gordon variety) on an Indian terrace with some religious paraphernalia. The theme is learning and piety.

Another painting from the 1770s with no martial display is also from Lucknow. It shows a Mughal prince with an assortment of ladies. Not the sort of subject to please anyone back in Britain, but it is the inspiration for a sensual view of Mughal India and Islam in general that has persisted to this day. Or did, until ISIS and other fundamentalists took even that small legacy away.

• Until 10 April, Artist and Empire, Tate Britain, London, www.tate.org