Two seemingly very different exhibitions have reopened, but both tell their own story about Western oppression of cultures they don’t understand.
Suspect Objects Suspect Subjects
This is the main exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, a collection of very different artworks that prompt thoughts about how Muslim communities are seen and demonised by western society.
From signs and flags with text that initially looks Arabic, but reveals itself to be English, to satirical rayguns and cupcakes, it’s a very wide-ranging display.
There are helpful explanatory signs next to some of the items that are based on news stories to remind us of the sheer dumb stupidity that humanity can sink to in its paranoia about cultures we don’t understand. Others probably don’t need much explanation such as the model drones with national flags removed and replaced with the logos of right-wing newspapers.
The prevent cupcakes are meant to represent alluring promotional giveaways, but concealing an acrid aftertaste.
Opium, Silk and the Missionaries in China
In the back room of the gallery is this alternative exhibition which looks at the less well-known story of British Missionaries in China during the time of the Opium Wars — that disgraceful period when Britain forced China to buy opium to support Britain’s tea trade.
Drawing on several collections the displays explore the history of the Opium Wars through botanical arts and tools, historical artefacts about silk and work recorded by British Missionaries based in China.
Knowing only the basics of the Opium Wars it was a surprise to learn that a vote in Parliament to authorise them was only narrowly won by the government. Opposition to the trade was strong even as it started.
The paradox of British Missionaries preaching a godly life to people while other Brits are trying to get people addicted to Opium around the corner is not lost on the Chinese.
This is a period of history that’s not particularly well known, and certainly not as well known as the slave trade, but probably should be, especially as it helps to explain some of the Chinese feelings about western cultures trying to oppress the rise of modern China.