Confessions of a Colonial Lecturer

Lucy Panesar, Staff

Ornate wallpaper featuring Queen Victoria in the centre, surrounded by images of animals in colonial settings.
Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Wallpaper, 1887 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I taught Contextual Studies on Foundation for over 10 years, and whilst it was my personal goal to instil in students a sense of social and environmental responsibility, in hindsight I could have done so much more if I had known then what I know now…

When I first started the job, I consulted the awarding body’s handbook on what content to cover, and saw that I was to begin with early Modernism and the Great Exhibition of 1851. I got on with the task, looking to Gombrich and the V&A website for reference, and soon developed a fascination with the Victorian era and the British Empire. I enjoyed telling students the story of Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the showcase for Queen Vic’s imperial treasures, and I showed examples of design from that time illustrating her power as Empress, like the wallpaper pictured here. I would point to the inset illustrations of ‘natives’ in loincloths, fighting amongst themselves in the colonial settings. I described this and while I was curious to know more and explain more I didn’t, as I’d need to quickly move onto the next example of European modernism: Pablo Picasso and the inspiration he gained from African masks.

Not long before leaving that role, I had started a Masters in Education, investigating racial inequalities, learning more about decolonisation and becoming increasingly conscious of the implications of what I was including and excluding in my lectures, recognising the power of a single image in perpetuating an ideal of racial superiority and inferiority. A covering for a wall with a repeated print of dark, naked ‘natives’ surrounding their colonial mother/ saviour/ oppressor (delete according to your view).

On reading Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish) I learn that a great majority of British people are, to this day, proud of Britain’s colonial history. I have never felt such pride. As a descendent of Punjabi Sikhs, who migrated to Kenya and then the UK as a result of British Imperial rule, I find the wallpaper now even more disturbing. Later in her book, Hirsh expresses something of what I feel when she writes:

One reason is that I didn’t know what Britain was. I didn’t know its true past, I was totally unaware of its secrets. And when it comes to race, Britain definitely has secrets. They lurk in the language, and the brickwork and the patterns of society, so that, for those who are silent or desperate enough to listen and search, clues gradually begin to reveal themselves. Some of these secrets relate to the days, turned years, turned centuries, in which British people mingled their destinies with the people and products of India, China, South East Asia and the Middle East for instance. Others would explain, if only we could hear them, why Britain and Africa are so closely linked. A link that was directly responsible for my existence‘ (2018, p.37).

I reflect on the mingling of my Indian and British parents, brought together by our Victorian Empress and what more I could have said in those lectures back then …

This article was originally written and published in Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education Zine 1 (2018).

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