Walter Crane’s Imperial Federation Map, from 1886, featured in the Tate Britain show Artist and Empire: ‘The style of Cameron’s sweeping comments bore some striking resemblances with the grand paintings in the exhibition.’ Photograph: Tate Britain
The prime minister’s intervention implies he bears the white man’s burden to ‘save’ the brown woman
Before David Cameron launched himself this week into a critique of the English language skills of Muslim women in the UK, he would have done well to take a tour of Tate Britain’s exhibition Artist and Empire. It’s a deeply unsettling reminder of a past that the British have made an art of half-forgetting.
This is painting by the square metre: huge canvases to demonstrate the struggle and the glory of British expansionary militarism. It’s a reminder that spreading that pink across the globe was a brutally violent process. But it was the undercurrent of erotic thrill to empire that is even more disturbing. Imperial maps are bordered by large-breasted maidens holding cornucopia brimming with exotic fruits for the conqueror. One portrait of a coy, bare-breasted woman was that of a hostage imprisoned by James Cook in his cabin as part of negotiations with a recalcitrant indigenous people in the Pacific. Empire offered an abundance of available women; in contrast the imperialists’ womenfolk are dressed and presented in domestic settings, safely established under male control as wives and daughters.
Women’s lives – and bodies – have long been one of the key battlegrounds used by the west to stake out its claim to being a superior civilisation and at the same time cast those it wishes to subjugate as barbaric. “White man rescuing brown women” was the thrill of empire, whereby desire for domination could be masked as virtuous duty.
That was also the gist of Cameron’s intervention; ironically, his twist on this old theme was that Muslim women are not available – for the labour market. They are kept at home and are “economically inactive”, that new slur of disdain in hard-working Britain. He is not interested if they are caring for children or elderly relatives. In the Muslim homes I have visited it was clear that the women were extremely busy cooking and caring for many family members.
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