Winston Churchill is a formidable figure in British history. He is well known for being the saviour of Britain in its 'darkest hour' during the Second World War – or so I was taught in school, here in Oldham.
We are educated about Nazi Germany, the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Yet our schools do not give us the respect as British citizens to teach us in-depth about our past: the British Empire, slavery, colonisation, concentration camps built in Kenya and patriarchal disdain for Suffragism. The policies that contributed to the Bengal famine in 1943 ring loudly in Oldham's South Asian population. Let us not only focus on Churchill's Second World War. Let us look at everything.
An estimated three million people died from starvation, disease and other causes arising from the 1943 Bengal famine. Churchill worsened the conditions of those in the Bengal province. With rice eaters and growers depending on agriculture, he ignored parliamentary requests to import food to Bengal. Understanding that millions were on the brink of death, his efforts were focused on cultivating enough food to feed British soldiers and civilians.
In addition, people of colour were subjected to alienation. Churchill once said: 'I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.' These words are quoted in a Time magazine book review of Madhusree Mukerjee's 2010 book, Churchill's Secret War.
When a Prime Minister exudes hatred towards a people whose land he has stolen, and whose policies led to famine, we need to ask: does the action of choosing to forget actively help to maintain structural racism in our society?
Between 1900 and 1905, Churchill was the Conservative MP for Oldham. With a wealthy upbringing, imperial adventures, and connections in London, he was well on his way to making his voice heard. Gallery Oldham holds two artworks which memorialise Churchill's legacy – an oil painting by G. W. Fish and a bronze bust by Jacob Epstein.
George William Fish was active in Birkenhead, Liverpool in the 1890s, a city known for its involvement in the slave trade. We do not know much about the artist, but the donor R. F. Ware was probably known to Churchill. According to the research undertaken as part of an Art Detective discussion, the portrait must have been commissioned after Churchill's election in autumn 1900 and was displayed in the Gallery in 1902. Perhaps the portrait was intended to hang in the Conservative Association offices, to promote the career of the rising young politician.
In 1901, Churchill became a freemason. It is likely Fish travelled to Churchill's residence to paint the portrait. As Churchill and the donor, Ware, were freemasons, could the artist also have been connected to the freemasons? The Gallery must have felt indebted to Ware, as having a portrait of an up-and-coming politician in their collection linked them to the heart of power, and the associated success of Britain and its 'glorious empire'.
Jacob Epstein's bronze bust was commissioned by the War Artist's Advisory Committee and executed in November 1946, after the war and the famine. The American-British sculptor Epstein was the son of Jewish refugees from Poland. Churchill and Epstein were neighbours in the early 1950s and Epstein publicly praised and commented on Churchill's fine artistic skill.
With many ethnic minority groups migrating to Oldham throughout the mid-twentieth century, there is great diversity in the make-up of Oldham's community – in 2013, Oldham's population was around 10% Pakistani and 7% Bangladeshi. The bronze bust and the painting tell the story of a European leader, but Churchill's history is also the history of British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, Partition and subsequent migration.
That the bust is on display in Oldham today allows us to tell a story of twentieth-century international connections. Museums and galleries have a duty to represent the reality of our histories. Our family histories are affected by white supremacists and British imperialism. To decolonise our galleries goes beyond the removal of statues in our public spaces. If this is the only action we take, racism will not disappear as those statues can.
Fish's portrait of Churchill is currently used to engage children with a quiz to learn that he was the MP for Oldham. Personally, I would like to see the painting used as an opportunity to create a dialogue on racism.
As art spaces, we should lead by example by using this opportunity – as Art UK's Director and Deputy Director said in their recent statement on the Black Lives Matter movement: 'There is such an opportunity here to use these artworks to teach us about our colonial past in ways that go behind what is depicted and reveal the wider, often uncomfortable truths that lie behind the paintings and sculptures that adorn our gallery walls and sit in our public spaces.'
The bust was made to commemorate Churchill as one of the greatest wartime leaders, guiding Britain to victory in the Second World War. Yet to many it also signifies the blind eye Churchill's parliament adopted when 3 million people were on the brink of death in the 1943 Bengal famine.
When a country glorifies a man responsible for countless injustices, it reflects upon its people who fail to acknowledge and continue to administer similar prejudices. What kind of future do we create when we propagate hatred towards a group of people? How do we use our pieces to educate ourselves and future generations on the 'other' forgotten narrative?
Winston Churchill statue daubed with 'was a racist' graffiti during Black Lives Matter protests https://t.co/cy5qoFWgch— The Independent (@Independent) June 7, 2020
The actions of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to both far-right protestors and Prime Minister Boris Johnson defending Churchill's statue. We are a nation built on the foundations of white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, war crimes, poverty and social unrest. White supremacy is on the rise... or has it always been here, in a 'post-colonial' Britain? Have groups such as the National Front and the white power skinheads of the 1970s merely blended in with society? Are there racists among our families, friends, neighbours, bus drivers, teachers, managers – even our political representatives? What does it say about us as people when we disregard those stories as incompatible with our own narratives?
Choosing to be ignorant amplifies the oppressor and dehumanises the oppressed. Racism must be investigated and denounced. The works we choose to put on display speak volumes about who we revere and the values that we uphold. It is imperative to consider multiple narratives whilst making these decisions, rather than just the ones we were taught at school or the ones we feel most comfortable with.
Rabia Begum, artist, writer and activist