Lockwood Kipling at V&A

Art, architecture, culture and how we learn about history and heritage, and all its meanings, are the marks of a society, and inform us of a civilization. Museums, often the benchmarks of the above, are vital as they tell us not only of the past, but by choices of definition, and even definition by choice, our present and our future too. Which is why places like museums are so important, and will be even more so over the next few years.

An artist and educator, that all floats my boat. But what really gets me is the story. It's the story that brings people together, or throws them apart. And it's the narrative within the story that's crucial; whose narrative is it and in whose voice? Who is allowed to speak and who has been silenced, and why? Has a narrative been imposed and another hidden away?

And this is why reading about the new Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A, in collaboration with the Bard Graduate Centre in New York and curated by Julian Bryant, filled me with a strange sense of dread and excitement. Dread for the same old story being churned out and applauded, and excitement of getting up close to some treasures that I can truly identify with. Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, is a well-known writer yet controversial character, an ardent advocate of imperialism and the British rule in India. His father, Lockwood Kipling, was lesser known figure, yet a recognised artist, teacher and curator, and the figure that this exhibition celebrates. 

The exhibition was promoted through the museum’s website and a range of reviews in the media, and whilst some casually questioned his role and controversial importance in what many coin as the ‘cultural exchange between India and England’ throughout the years of empire, the majority celebrated the exhibition and the figure it focuses on.  Bryant calls Kipling the “unquestion[able] William Morris of India.”Fans of Morris will say that he changed the approach to English design in the Victorian era, reconnecting the textiles and interior design to nature and spiritual significance. What is often overlooked and never explored is Morris’ inspiration; art and architecture from Muslim heritage.[1] Some further irony is that Bryant says of this exhibition “We’re tackling the empire head on. Seventy years after it ended with Indian independence in 1947 it really is time to get to grips with it.” So why then did I have such a problem seeing this? Why does it still feel like the whole story isn’t being told? Could it be that an institution that was established during empire, and named after the most prominent rulers of the Raj, was in essence celebrating an old employee, another white British coloniser. And the legacy of colonial perspective remains; Kipling is celebrated but the brilliantly skilled craftspeople he learnt from remain nameless. The exhibition presents Kipling as a saviour by reviving the arts of India. He may have helped to revive the market for Indian made crafts by popularising it through study and his work with the V&A, but that the whole art and craft industry of the subcontinent was saved by one figure seems a bit far-fetched.

But back to the excitement; objects from my people, my ancestors, made with their hands that have lasted through the ages and are a testament to the advancements in materials, technology and design that at the time were dearly sought after by the elite of Western Europe. And I wasn’t disappointed. Some highlights amongst many included a hand embroidered saddle cloth that would upstage any bride’s wedding dress, and hand carved wooden and brass doors, so intricate the detail was filigree like.  And via the exhibition labels we’re told about these beautiful objects; for example the inkwell with delicate inlay and fine handcrafted gold jewellery. These items formed part of the Indian Court at the Great Exhibition that took place at Crystal Palace in 1851. Kipling visited the exhibition as a teenager and was so inspired, he went on to study art and teach it in India. Organised by the East India Company, they describe the materials they’re made from, from whose collections they’re borrowed, but not how they became a part of that collection, (or how they were stolen). Many of these objects went on to form the foundation collections of the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A.

During the Raj, Indian designs were copied and reproduced in factories in the Midlands. These cheaper and mass produced items were then sent back to India, undervaluing the tradition of locally hand crafted pieces, and crippling local markets. Whilst Kipling is credited with reviving the Indian markets, it’s the British themselves who ruined it in the first place.

The Indian made crafts were also displayed in exhibitions around Europe. This may have added to revival of traditional methods and materials in art and textiles, but was also part of the propaganda; empire was not only good for Britain, but good for India.

The exhibition boards narrate ‘unstable periods’ and that the ‘British Raj sought to assert its control’ but nowhere is it mentioned why this period was so unstable, nor the means and methods employed by the British to assert said control. No stories of the poverty or violence, these mere details seem to be have been conveniently forgotten. If the exhibition of art and culture is divorced from the everyday experience of oppression and occupation, then we must question if are we are really seeing a true capsule of reality.

The boards and labels around the exhibition inform the visitor of time lines, background information about the man and his passion for the arts. Kipling, controversially at the time, encouraged his students to study Indian art and architecture (previously only European art was studied) and even somehow revived the art of the continent. So nothing to do with the Indian craftsmen and women who'd perfected their trade through the centuries, and who shared their knowledge skills and expertise then? And it is unclear whether his students were British or Indian.  Would Indians have been allowed to study at these prestigious art schools? And this cultural colonialism, so dangerous it causes the oppressed to view themselves and their art as lower, less valuable and primitive, has effected generations. The legacy is so strong that even today, the NCA in Lahore (formally the Mayo school of Arts founded in 1875 by the British. Lockwood Kipling was its first principal) teaches mainly western art and architecture.

The Times of India reported in 1874 that due to the teaching of Kipling and his colleagues, ‘native workmen have been apt to learn as their confrères in Europe and that architecture has now […] a glorious future before her in India’. So does this mean that, according to the dominant narrative, the rich heritage of Mughal and Islamic, Rajput, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist architecture, that existed centuries before the British even knew what shampoo was, just didn’t exist? Just like tea being the quintessential and most British thing ever, but actually came from China and India.  Its 2017 and we’re being told the same stories.

The timeline at the entrance mentions, over the entire duration of empire, one Indian uprising in 1857-58, which paints the picture of a mainly subservient and docile population. It sweepingly glosses over the mutinies and rebellions that took place against the British Raj, which were brutally and horrifically squashed, as well as the movement for resistance and independence that began with the conflicts with the British East India Company in the 1750s. The exhibition boards fail to mention the bloodshed, famine and theft (incidentally the word loot is derived from the Hindi word of the same meaning) By failing to address certain aspects of history, the visitor must question what world view the museum is promoting, albeit subconsciously. And if it was an unintentional omission, then perhaps it is time to delve deeper into why – why do the cultures and systems of showcasing history in our museums allow this to happen.

Don't museums have a responsibility, an educational and artistic one, but also to confront the past in a way that other institutions can't or won’t? Or is it a case of the institution, establishment and designed system, and that the master’s tools will never bring down, or even change, the master’s house? So what do we do? Work to challenge the system, or build our own that tell our stories?

This isn't an attack on museums like the V&A, nor a call to boycott. By all means, go and see the exhibition in my favourite museum. We need to be present in such spaces, and the gatekeepers of such spaces to know what we think. It’s actually about us, even though our voices are hardly ever given a platform, or taken seriously when they are. This is a brown woman of Indian heritage, asking some genuine questions of establishments like the V&A. Museums are constantly trying to reach out to people of colour and those that wouldn’t usually frequent the establishments, but doesn’t the lack of recognition of historical detail other us even more, and push communities further apart? We're here and willing to engage, we always have been. The question is, are you?

In his poem on representational art, Keats says that ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty”[2] but if beauty is displayed without the truth behind it, then what does that say of the museum and its role in contemporary society?


[1] Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery had a Morris and Warhol exhibition last ear. A beautiful exhibit but not one mention of where Morris’s ideas and inspiration came from.

[2] Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats