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A very British View

By Helen Gavaghan. November 22nd 2009.

Britannia stands poised to plunge her sword into the Bengal tiger. Symbol of India. Her left hand grasps the beast's muzzle. Its fangs are bared. Eyes terrified. Claws semi sheathed curl, in a gesture that one could mistake as affectionate, around the male musculature of Britannia's arm.

In the arch formed by Britannia's skirt and the rearing tiger a young girl crouches. Her face turned in mute dissociation from the incomprehensible gazes up blankly at Britannia. Only feet from her a woman, perhaps her mother, lies dead. Beside the woman an infant boy, dying or dead, with pain still etched on his face. Close to the woman's hand lies a discarded sky blue ribbon.

This is an allegory of the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857-1858, called Retribution. It is oil on canvas by Edward Armitage (correct Edward Armitage)(1817 - 1896) and was given to the City's burghers for The Town Hall in 1858.

Curator of World Cultures, Ms Antonia Lovelace, selected this painting as one of the windows on world culture currently on display at Leeds Art Gallery on The Headrow. Her tour on 17th September had a rapt and mixed audience, including language students from Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Ms Lovelace had a very British story to tell. Each piece she expounded on having been created by someone working from within a British social structure, though the artists were not all British by birth.

What seems to have caught her attention, though she did not say this, were faces - strong, or expressive of powerful responses, or symbolic. Like those of the African women talking, at lunch, from the US and from Africa itself.

These women, Ms Lovelace thought, might be pondering their common heritage. The painting, an acrylic on canvas called "Five" by Lubaina Himid, was created in 1992 and is on loan to the Gallery from Griselda Pollack, professor of art history at The University of Leeds.

Then there is Jacob Kramer's painting of an anguished Jewish woman. Entitled "Here our Voice", the woman is crying to God in a painting that is an exemplification of Jewish women in pogroms the world over and through the ages. It is hung on a wall next to a statue of the God of War by Eric Kennington.

Jacob Kramer, Ms Lovelace told us, drew inspiration from African masks, many of which are displayed at the Leeds City Museum in Millennium Square. Ms Lovelace is an anthropologist, but she did not take us any deeper into her thoughts on masks, leaving us to reflect on our own masks and what an artist sees.

Though Ms Lovelace took us on a very British tour, she explored work begging for multicultural appraisal in today's Britain.

The talk and tour is one of a series running until 3rd December, 2009. at Leeds City Art Gallery. For more information call 0113 247 8256.

Thanks to Lubaina Himid for drawing to my attention that Professor Pollock's name is spelt with an o, and not an a. Ms Himid'S work was on loan from Professor Pollock to Leeds City Art Gallery.

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