The Rex Whistler Restaurant inside the Tate Britain gallery in London may never reopen due to claims that the mural commissioned for the space in 1927 is racist and “offensive”.
As reported by Art Newspaper, painter Rex Whistler’s mural, entitled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, was commissioned for the opening of the restaurant in the 1920s by Tate Britain director Charles Aitken.
Categorised as a Grade I listed interior, the Tate must now decide what to do with the controversial mural. The issue came to light after complaints were made to the museum and a petition on change.org describing the artwork as “horrific”, got over 7,000 signatures.
According to the Art Newspaper, Moya Greene, then Tate trustee and chair of its ethics committee, informed other trustees that after review that the committee were “unequivocal in their view that the imagery of the work is offensive”. She added: “the offence is compounded by the use of the room as a restaurant.”
The imagery that has been deemed offensive includes depictions of bound and enslaved black children in distress, as well as caricatured depictions of Chinese people.
The mural was restored in 2013 as part of a £45 million renovation across the museum, and last year the gallery added a ‘description of acknowledgement’ to the racist imagery in an attempt to recognise its problematic nature.
However, since the closure of the restaurant in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has not reopened despite the reopening of gallery displays last week.
This may not be as a result of the controversy it has drawn, as a number of Tate cafés and restaurants are yet to reopen, but it brings into question what will happen to the space.
The ethics committee’s findings suggest that it is extremely unlikely for the space to remain in use as it is, but trustees were advised that Whistler’s painting is “a work of art in the care of trustees and that it should not be altered or removed”.
The Tate now faces a dilemma, as closure of the restaurant means more job losses for staff and a reduction in revenue from restaurant earnings. Opening the room as an exhibition space to view the mural is a possibility that must be considered, but questions of whether this helps or hinders the museum’s commitment to anti-racism remain.
A spokesperson for Tate Britain told the Art Newspaper that the restaurant will remain closed until at least Autumn 2021. “We are taking this time to consult internally and externally on the future of the room and the mural, and we will keep the public informed of future plans,” they said.