Tate tap Keith Piper for ‘offensive’ Rex Whistler mural commission

Keith Piper. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes. Courtesy a-n The Artists Information Company

British artist Keith Piper will create a new work to be shown alongside the controversial Rex Whistler mural in what was Tate Britain’s main restaurant.

The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, which dates to 1927 when the fine dining restaurant first opened, includes a small scene in which black children are shown enslaved and being led on a leash.

In 2020, an ethics committee convened by Tate told the museum that the mural was offensive. The restaurant was subsequently closed. The independent report, commissioned by the museum after protests concerning the work first emerged, said the authors were ‘unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive’, and that ‘the offence is compounded by the use of the room as a restaurant’.

Some critics have argued however that the use of the slave imagery was intended by Whistler to critique humanity’s propensity for evil, even in the most bucolic of scenes.

Piper was a founder member of the 1980s BLK Art Group. He said of his commission: ‘The “interwar” years fascinate me. On the one hand, we have the creative rebellion and hedonistic excess of the “Roaring Twenties” and its “Bright Young Things”. On the other, we have paranoia and polarisation across the country as seen in the anti-black riots of 1919 and the reactionary and racist ideologies that gripped sections of British society. Rex Whistler’s mural sits at the confluence of multiple influences from that period and becomes a fascinating window into a complex era.’

Piper’s commission is in production and due to be unveiled in autumn 2023.

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