For years, a mural that wraps around the walls of Tate Britain’s Rex Whistler restaurant has been the source of controversy. Issues with the mural, painted by the restaurant’s namesake, have come to the forefront once more following momentum gained over the summer by the Black Lives Movement. The findings of an ethics committee have come to a conclusion for the Whistler work that could jeopardize the future of the restaurant as well.
After receiving complaints about racist depictions in a wall painting from the 1920s, Tate Britain deleted a reference to its restaurant as “the most amusing room in Europe”.
The Rex Whistler restaurant is covered from floor to ceiling with a mural specially commissioned by the British artist entitled Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, which depicts the enslavement of a black child and the plight of his mother. It also shows the boy running behind a horse carriage, to which he is attached with a chain around his neck.
In 2013, the mural was part of an extensive £45 million restoration of Tate Britain. That same year is noted as the first time the offensive nature of the mural was first formally flagged. The painting has remained, but after the events of this summer, Tate tasked its own ethics committee to look into the artwork. Among those attending the ethics committee meetings were renowned artist and former Tate Artist Trustee John Akomfrah and Dr. David Dibosa of the University of the Arts.
The Whistler was a topic of discussion in a September Tate Galleries Board of Trustees meeting, the minutes for which have recently been made public. During that meeting, Tate’s Board heard from the ethics committee’s chair who updated them on their findings.
According to the Trustee meeting’s minutes, the ethics committee were “unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive.” Furthermore, the context of the murals, being the décor for one of the museum’s eateries, “compounded” the offensive nature of the artwork.
The ethics committee continued, reminding Trustees that “the mural is a work of art in the care of Trustees and that it should not be altered or removed.”
Labor politician Diane Abott suggested a less draconian course of action, noting:
“I have eaten in Rex Whistler restaurant at Tate Britain. Had no idea famous mural had repellent images of black slaves. Museum management need to move the restaurant. Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.”
A Tate spokesman said:
“Tate was open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist images in the Rex Whistler mural. In the context of the Mayor of London’s recently announced review of public space, we welcome further discussion on it.”
“The mural was commissioned for the walls of the restaurant in 1927 and was one of the artist’s most important works. It is part of a listed historical interior. However, it is important to recognize the presence of offensive and unacceptable content and its relationship to racist and imperialist attitudes in the 1920s and today.”
“The interpretation text on the wall next to the mural and on the website addresses this directly as part of our ongoing work to confront such stories. This process goes hand in hand with promoting a wider history of British art and identity today.”