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.

Both exhibitions are open at the Brunei Gallery in Bloomsbury, Tues-Sat 11am-5pm, are free to visit and need booking in advance here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★☆☆

Brunei Gallery, SOAS
Thornhaugh Street, London
WC1H 0XG

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2 comments
  1. David says:

    Not so much “trying to oppress the rise of modern China” as control and deal with an authoritarian government that had been welcomed in , for instance , the WTO , one that represses selected groups of its own population . Chinese people at home and in China as you well know are held in high esteem by the average brit .
    Please , a little more nuance in your otherwise excellent site !

    • ianVisits says:

      Read the sentence again, I am referring to how the Chinese government sees the issue, not how western people see it.

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