Exploring Leicester Museum & Art Gallery 12 years ago, trainee curator Tara Munroe came across a stack of discarded oil paintings. The troubling scenes they portrayed would go on to change the direction of her career and may soon alter wider attitudes to art history.
The paintings depicted wealthy colonial life in South America and the Caribbean, and had been marked for destruction by the gallery. But the images, which each subtly grade racial and social distinctions, spoke clearly and powerfully to Munroe.
“To me, they are beautiful paintings but they have a very dark message within them,” she told the Observer as she prepared for the first public display of the unrestored paintings, in Leicester in the new year.
Now an expert in black heritage and the director of Opal 22 Arts and Edutainment, Munroe has doggedly continued her research into the origin and meaning of the five rare late-18th-century works she found. First, she persuaded the city’s art gallery & museum to save the works that had originally been categorised as distasteful and irrelevant, then she started to try to discover who had painted them and why. In the last few months, she has won funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to curate a further, bigger exhibition of the paintings in 2023.
The works are examples of a genre known as “casta paintings” and there is only one other collection in Britain. It is also thought there are only about 100 complete or partial paintings known of anywhere, making the Leicester find of international significance.
“I want to help people understand the history of racial stereotyping in the colonial era and how the colour bar actually worked. I’d also like to link it to the academic discipline of critical race theory,” explained Munroe. “I’m from a mixed Caribbean background myself, although I am paler skinned, and so I know it is important to study the way colour has been used. It is why the paintings connected with me so much,” she said.
The re-evaluation of the paintings Munroe put in train is an instance of allowing prejudiced art back into the visual arts canon, or even “un-cancelling”, and it remains an unorthodox, sometimes controversial approach.
Some of the terms used then are now regarded as offensive. “Mulatto is still understood,” said Munroe. “And there are others such as Lobo, or wolf, which was what someone half-Indian and half-black was called. I want to move away from these labels without losing the history, and to be honest I’m scratching my head about the best way to do it.”
Munroe, who grew up in Luton, has Chinese and African heritage, and recalls that at school fellow pupils would ask what she was. “My mother would just say ‘green with pink spots’, but that didn’t really help me,” she recalls.
Casta paintings date from the 1600s to the beginning of the 19th century and were designed to show race and class divisions in Spanish colonies. Facial expressions and physical attitudes all encode the hierarchy and status of the people painted, and sometimes racial mixtures are identified and inscribed on the canvas. The works Munroe found, which also express contemporary anxieties about racial mixing, were originally donated to the Leicester museum in 1852, by Joseph Noble, a lord mayor of the city.
“For me, perhaps the biggest interest to this story is how it shows that we see things differently when we come from a different perspective,” Munroe explains. “A lot of people had looked at these paintings before, and they were just being used to train picture restorers before they were destroyed. It was only because I was working there that I saw something in them. There is a new level of understanding that comes when you have different people working somewhere.”
After the restoration work is complete later next year, Munroe plans a series of events and lectures with the aim of understanding the progression of academic attitudes to racial identity.