Past Events

London, Asia, Art, Worlds conference: Thinking Through Empire

Conference, Lecture – Rana Mitter, Dipti Khera, Toshio Watanabe, Gemma Sharpe, Wenny Teo

  • 24 June 2021
  • 1:00 – 4:15 pm
  • This event is part of London, Asia, Art, Worlds, a multi-part programme of online events taking place in May and June 2021. It is envisioned as a murmuration, a series of interconnected papers, conversations, performances and interventions.
  • Zoom Webinar

Chair: Wenny Teo (Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

13.00-13.15 Welcome & Introductions

13.15-14.00 Keynote Paper: Rana Mitter (Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, and a Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford), ‘The Making, Breaking and Return of Empire – 1750 to 2021 and Beyond’

14.00-14.15 Discussion and Questions

14.15-14.30 Break

14.30-14.35 Welcome back/Introductions

14.35-14.50 Dipti Khera (Associate Professor, Art History and Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), ‘From Udaipur’s Streets to London’s Stephenson Way: Sensing Historical Moods between the Visual Worlds and Archived Words of Ghasi, Waugh, Finden, and Tod’

14.50-15.05 Toshio Watanabe (Professor for Japanese Arts and Cultural Heritage, University of East Anglia), ‘Watercolour Landscape of “Japan” in Victorian London, Meiji Tokyo and Colonial Taipei: Shifts in the Canon’

15.05-15.20 Gemma Sharpe (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Art History, City University of New York), ‘The Odder Story: Iqbal Geoffrey’s London’

15.20-15.45 Discussion & Questions

15.45-16.15 Optional breakout rooms for continued discussion

Paper Abstracts

Rana Mitter

We start with the presence of Mahatma Gandhi in London in 1931 for the Second Round Table talks on India’s future. The contrast between the voice of resistance, clad in khadi, and the pomp of the British imperial capital, has become a legendary moment, and in some ways has reified empire as a clash of cultures. However, this lecture aims both to recognise the conflict and violence inherent in empire while taking a longer view of the complexity of the imperial encounter – and pointing out that it lasts long after the formal end of empire itself. It will take in the following themes: industrialization as the cause of growing divergence between Asia and northwest Europe; the globalization of thought as ‘circuits of knowledge’ started to converge, with Asian worldviews being absorbed but also hybridized into a new ‘global modern’; the growth of a new economic consensus in which the power of empire was made to seem normal and indeed moral; the growing power of technology as a means both to link peoples and to exacerbate power imbalances; and the power of local and global conflict to destroy the assumptions of empire beyond repair.

We return to London 1931 and look forward to the decades that followed, and end with the reflection: how many of the factors that shaped an empire that supposedly ended half a century or more ago are still with us now? And how far should we understand the current great power disputes between the west and Asia as a new argument about empire?

Dipti Khera

Moods inflected the representation of lands and architecture in profound and intermedial ways across eighteenth-century South Asia and Britain. In charting the aesthetic, epistemic, and political power of the 'moods of a place,' the pictorial experimentations and innovations that take form in the city of Udaipur emerge as a tour de force. The artist Ghasi crosses courtly and colonial worlds. As a court artist for Udaipur kings Bhim Singh and Jawan Singh, Ghasi created large-scale artworks featuring moods of plentitude, pleasure, and piousness of urban places and lush frontiers. As the 'native' artist for the British colonial agent James Tod, who was also the first librarian of London's Royal Asiatic Society, he documented numerous temples. Ghasi's drawings, the watercolors by Patrick Waugh, who also traveled with Tod in Rajasthan, and the plates of the engraver Edward Finden, who worked with these artists' illustrations in London, formed Tod's sources for writing the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (182932). When we examine this corpus of topographical images – that sought to affect urbane audiences in deeply emotive ways – against the long history of painted lands, Ghasi's artworks create and confront the worlds and archives critical for decolonizing art histories and aesthetics.

Toshio Watanabe

During the late nineteenth century a number of British watercolour artists visited Japan to paint Japanese landscapes for selling them back in London. Most of these showed little impact of Japanese art. Within Japonisme studies, the popularity of this particular genre of naturalistic depiction of Japanese landscape in watercolour has not received its due attention, unlike the Yokohama photography, covering a similar ground.

In Tokyo, exhibitions by these British artists created a huge impact on some of the Japanese artists, some even abandoning oil and figure painting in favour of plein air watercolour landscape. This led to the establishment of the Japanese Watercolour Movement, which in my view established a new third force in modern Japanese painting creating a shift in its canon.

This paper will focus on two of this movement’s main contributions. First, its enthusiastic proselytising of British watercolours. Their heroes were Turner and Ruskin and for them the capital of western art was not Paris but London. The second significance is that it was instrumental in modernizing the art of painting in Taiwan, chiefly through the Japanese watercolour artist Ishikawa Kin’ichirō’s teaching in Taipei. Both Ishikawa, a great devotee of the British watercolour, and his Taiwanese students painted the colonial ‘Japanese’ landscape of Taiwan, thus showing much refracted shifts in the canon.

Gemma Sharpe

In April 1969, The New York Times published a report on Britain’s Black and Asian community in the wake of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The report included statements from artist-lawyer Iqbal Geoffrey (b. Chiniot, 1939–), recently arrived in London from the U.S. ‘I have a claim on England, not on America,’ Geoffrey stated in the article. ‘I was born British before I was Pakistani.’ Yet by late 1970 Geoffrey was back in the U.S. insisting on his status as American artist of note. This paper explores Geoffrey’s 1968–69 sojourn in London – one of three extended visits to the city over his career. It explains the circumstances that brought him to the city and detangles his complex international itinerary along with his political – and legal – claim to Britishness and British institutions including the Tate, the National Gallery, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. Geoffrey’s legacy has been neglected and misunderstood; writing in The Other Story catalogue, Rasheed Araeen presents Geoffrey as a trickster who delights in conflict and sabotaging the pretentions of art. This paper argues that Geoffrey’s practice instead offers a deeply strategic theorization of avant garde practice, postcolonial belonging, and decolonial critique that remains not only relevant but applicable to the contemporary moment.

London, Asia, Art, Worlds is convened by:

Hammad Nasar, Senior Research Fellow, Paul Mellon Centre
Ming Tiampo, Professor, Art History, and Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research, Paul Mellon Centre

General of India receiving Maharana Jawan Singh of Udaipur at the Ajmer Durbar, held on February 8, 1832, c. 1832, opaque watercolour, gold and silver on cloth, 189 × 128 cm. Collection Brooklyn Museum (2002.34). Digital image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum


Thinking Through Empire

Papers from Rana Mitter, Dipti Khera, Toshio Watanabe, Gemma Sharpe, and Wenny Teo.

About the speakers

  • Rana Mitter head and shoulders headshot.

    Rana Mitter OBE FBA is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, and a Fellow of St Cross College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of several books, including China’s War with Japan: The Struggle for Survival, 1937–1945 (Penguin, 2013), which won the 2014 RUSI/Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature, and was named a Book of the Year in the Financial Times and Economist. His latest book is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (Harvard, 2020). He has commented regularly on China in media and forums around the world, including at the World Economic Forum at Davos. His recent documentary on contemporary Chinese politics Meanwhile in Beijing is available on BBC Sounds. He is co-author, with Sophia Gaston, of the report ‘Conceptualizing a UK-China Engagement Strategy’ (British Foreign Policy Group, 2020). He won the 2020 Medlicott Medal for Service to History, awarded by the Historical Association

  • Dipti Khera headshot against background of books on bookshelf.

    Dipti Khera is Associate Professor in Art History and Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. As a scholar of early modern South Asia, with interdisciplinary training in art history, museum anthropology, and architecture, her research and teaching integrate longue durée perspectives and Indian Ocean and Eurasian geographies, and foreground art history's (re)making of colonized and racialized pasts. Khera's The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur's Painted Lands and India's Eighteenth Century (Princeton, 2020, awarded American Institute of Indian Studies' Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize) reveals powerfully immersive and politically contingent conceptions of a place's moods. It raises broader questions about how ecologies, emotions, aesthetics, and artifacts operate to constitute histories and collectives. Her articles have addressed the crafting of colonial taste and design by Indian silversmiths; material histories of eighteenth-century pleasures; entangled mobilities and conceptual affinities between disparate maps and scrolls that enabled long journeys. Her collaborative work with Rajasthan's museums has led to conservation, exhibition, and digital projects, including co-curating with Debra Diamond, A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur (opening in November 2022 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art). With Sarah Betzer, she is co-editing a forthcoming volume for Journal18 (Fall 2022), ‘The “Long” Eighteenth-Century?,’ which explores from which vantage points, whether local, regional, or transregional, and for whom, is the eighteenth century long.

  • Toshio Wantanabe headshot.

    Toshio Watanabe is Professor for Japanese Arts and Cultural Heritage at the University of East Anglia (Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures) and Professor Emeritus of History of Art and Design (Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation) of the University of the Arts London. He founded the Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN) at the University of Arts London in 2004. His recent publications include East Asian Art History in a Transnational Context, edited with Eriko Tomizawa-Kay (2019) and Collected Papers by Toshio Watanabe edited by Christopher J. Hayes (2020). He was among others Chair of Association of Art Historians, President of Japan Art History Forum, Vice-President of Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA), and a member of Tate Britain Council.

  • Gemma Sharpe headshot.

    Gemma Sharpe is a Postdoctoral Research Associate (2019-21) in Art History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her research examines the development of modernism in Pakistan in the context of Cold War internationalism, modern art’s vexed relationship to postcolonial ‘nation building,’ and with a particular focus on medium and works on paper. Between 2010 and 2014 she taught Art History at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, where she was also a coordinator at Vasl Artists’ Collective. She has an MFA in Art Writing from Goldsmiths and has published numerous articles, catalogue essays and reviews internationally. She recently co-edited an ARTMargins special issue on ‘Art, Institutions and Internationalism’ with Chelsea Haines, (Spring, 2019). Her research has been supported by the Asian Cultural Council, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and Paul Mellon Center for the Study of British Art, among others.

  • Headshot of Wenny Teo

    Wenny Teo is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. Her research centres on the art and visual culture of China and Chinese diasporas in transnational and global contexts. Prior to joining the Courtauld, she received a PhD in History of Art from UCL and worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial boards of the Oxford Art Journal and the Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art, and was awarded a Paul Mellon Mid-Career Fellowship in 2020 to prepare a monograph on the Singapore-born British sculptor Kim Lim (1936–1997).