A bluffer's guide to dissent in 7 objects
With so many dissenting objects to choose from, where do you start? Well, this post gives you just a few examples of the type of things you will see in the exhibition. From satirical prints to a ‘pussyhat’, it’s an eclectic mix!
Pass the salt
During the 16th-century English Reformation acts of Roman Catholic worship were banned. As such, shrines and reliquaries had to give the outward appearance that they were something else if they were to stand any chance of survival. Although it looks elaborate, this object – known as the Stonyhurst Salt – is at first glance a piece of secular tableware, a salt-cellar. However, it was made in the 1570s from silver-gilt decorated with rubies and rock crystal, taken from the recycled fragments of old reliquaries or church plate. As well as being made from religious objects, it contains further hidden Catholic messages. Rock crystal symbolised Christ’s purity, and the garnets and rubies were probably intended to evoke drops of blood (perhaps of Christ or of Catholic martyrs). The Stonyhurst Salt is proof that people did manage to retrieve and save sacred items in defiance of the law.
I can imagine the rich (and obviously Catholic) owners of this object saying to their guests, ‘of course, Catholicism has been banned, we wouldn’t dream of having such items of Catholic worship here. By the way, this is a salt-cellar – would you like some?’
In the pink
On 21 January 2017 protests were held worldwide in support of women’s rights. Many of the marchers wore hand-knitted hats with pointed ends which looked like cat ears. These ‘pussyhats’ unified the marching millions and reclaimed a misogynistic term for female genitalia. The newly elected US President, Donald Trump, had used this word in a leaked recording when boasting about assaulting women. The exhibition will see the hat, newly acquired by the Museum, go on display for the first time.
The decoration of tea wares in China is as old as the tradition of tea drinking, but their messages became increasingly politicised from the early 20th century. The image and inscription on this teapot lament the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The design – a mountainous landscape with trees and a river – is a metaphor for continuity in the face of adversity. The inscription on the reverse says ‘Never forget the country’s shame’.
Carry on Cleo
This terracotta oil lamp shows a crocodile, the emblem of Egypt, with a phallus for a tail upon which sits a naked female, presumed to be Cleopatra. It was probably produced as part of one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in history, which was directed against Mark Antony and Cleopatra by supporters of Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) in the 30s BC. By the mid-30s BC Rome was awash with rumours of Antony and Cleopatra’s alleged decadence. Octavian positioned himself as morally virtuous and publicly criticised his rival. Although this particular lamp was made in the 1st century AD, it strengthened Octavian’s claim to be the legitimate successor to Julius Caesar at the expense of Antony, whose association with Cleopatra proved to be his undoing. Cleopatra’s image was tarnished for thousands of years because of her relationships – a tale which still has resonance today.
When I first saw this object I thought, ‘that’s a really strong attack on Cleopatra, who was an incredibly powerful figure’. But actually, I fell into the trap, too. It was state-sanctioned ridicule, closer to propaganda. The future emperor Augustus and his supporters wanted to make her relationship with Antony seem as seedy as humanly possible.
Thick as a whale omelette
Attacks on gluttony, sexual amorality and reckless spending were as popular in late-Georgian satire as they are in cartoons today. Here master caricaturist James Gillray (1756–1815) launches a savage attack on George, Prince of Wales (the future George IV, r. 1820–1830). At first glance this appears to be a respectful portrait. On closer inspection he is revealed to be an obese and uncouth man with stinking breath and a love of banqueting, booze and women. Treatments for sexually transmitted diseases clutter the sideboard, while the unfinished buildings outside allude to his debts. Hopeless with money, the prince had to be repeatedly bailed out by the government.
Bone of contention
This papier mâché figure of a ‘fat cat’ factory owner was made for Mexican Day of the Dead parades in the mid-1980s. In its modern incarnation, as well as commemorating departed loved ones, the Day of the Dead portrays a ‘world turned upside down’, particularly the subversion of traditional hierarchies, the mockery of authority figures and class-based commentaries. The subjects made into papier mâché figures are chosen to reflect both contemporary politics and local concerns – this skeleton caricature of a corrupt factory owner enjoys immense wealth while his poorly paid workers toil away in appalling conditions.
Spot the hidden message
Raffia cloths of this type are commonly woven into clothing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, this hand-woven raffia cloth was probably made for the interior of someone’s house rather than worn as clothing. The French inscription – translated as ‘The skin of the leopard is beautiful, but inside it is war’ – is a Congolese proverb, probably a veiled criticism of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled from 1965 to 1997. Mobutu adopted leopard imagery as symbol of his style of ‘warrior’ rule, wearing a distinctive leopard-skin hat.
Not giving a hoot
This is a story of an artist being accused of dissent in a work that may or may not have been created with subversive intent. In Chinese culture the owl is sometimes regarded as a creature of darkness and ill omen. In 1973, a painting of a winking owl landed artist Huang Yongyu in trouble. Interpreted as a comment on the declining health of China’s leader, Chairman Mao, Huang was charged with blaspheming the state. While he was interrogated, the painting was exhibited in a display of censored art in Beijing – as a warning of what was unacceptable. Although eventually acquitted, Huang’s persecution effectively turned him into a dissident. After he was exonerated, Huang protested by painting these two owls. The inscription on this new painting says he did not intend the original owl to have a hidden meaning. But it also refers to the organiser of the censored art exhibition who had committed suicide – saying that perhaps the owls were a bad omen, for her… The artist goes on to say, ‘fate makes fun of man in a bizarre way’.
The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent runs from 6 September 2018 to 20 January 2019.
Supported by Citi.
The accompanying three-part BBC Radio 4 series will be broadcast from 11 August 2018.
Find out more about the exhibition and book your tickets today to take advantage of the special ‘early bird’ rate of £10.