8. Quest for Freedom

AD 1800 - Present

The last two hundred years have seen people across the world fight for the abolition of slavery, independence from imperial rule and personal freedoms. One of the most important stories of recent times is the quest for freedom. In this section, paintings, photographs, posters, everyday objects and contemporary art provide different perspectives on these struggles from around the world.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany ruled over hundreds of millions of people across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Fifty years later those empires had ended. India was one of the first countries to become independent on the 15th of August 1947, providing the model for many others to follow.

The quest for freedom does not end with independence from colonial rule. The struggle for freedom, from a national to a personal level, is an ongoing quest. In our globalised world, mass migration and gender equality are just some of the social and political challenges we face today.

Objects in conversation: Empire and identity

The women depicted in these objects speak to different experiences of empire. The first is empire personified in the figure of Queen Victoria, as seen through the eyes of an African artist. The second is an intimate image of two friends – one Indian, one European – which was painted on the eve of the end of empire. The tussles of European and Indian tradition are a present undercurrent in several of Sher-Gil’s works, which were acutely autobiographical, formed by her own mixed Indian-Hungarian identity. Both works speak of how identities were shaped and melded by the forces of colonialism.

Queen Victoria

Wood
AD 1875–1900
Nigeria
British Museum

Images of Queen Victoria were found across the British Empire and her face became a symbol of British imperial domination. This carving of Queen Victoria follows local conventions of the Yoruba people of Nigeria in representing the entire figure including the feet. Since no official portraits of Victoria show her feet, the artist has created his own interpretation of them and concealed them on the base. The Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with Lagos as its capital, was established by the British in 1861.

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Two Girls

By Amrita Sher-Gil

Oil on Canvas

1939

Budapest, Hungary

Collection of Navina and Vivan Sundaram

 

A confident European protectively touches the noticeably shyer Indian girl. Born in Budapest to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Hungarian mother, Sher-Gil’s childhood was spent between Europe and India. Painted at the time when she was moving from Budapest to India against the background of the rise of fascism in Europe and nationalism in India, there can be little doubt about the shifting feelings of determination and pensiveness in these two women.

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Johann Zoffany with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell

By Johann Zoffany

Oil on Canvas

About 1786–87

Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata (R2066)

 

The artist Johann Zoffany has shown himself here turning to look at the viewer. Alongside him are John Wombwell of the British East India Company and the Calcutta Mint, Antoine Polier, a collector of Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts, and Major General Claude Martin of the British Army. All three Europeans were invested in gathering knowledge about India. On the walls behind them, paintings of tropical landscapes populated by locals illustrate the grand project of the Enlightenment – knowledge gathering, which would also lead to colonial control.

Empire

Although the British East India Company had controlled territory in India since the mid-eighteenth century, it was in 1858 that India effectively became a British colony. After the Indian Revolt of 1857, an unsuccessful uprising against British rule, power was transferred to the British crown and Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1876.

The Indian independence movement began almost immediately, but can be seen as reaching its culmination in Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful protest to bring about swaraj (independence, or self-rule).

This movement can be seen as the inspiration for a wider struggle for freedom against slavery and colonial oppression that occurred across the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Page from a slave register

Paper

AD 1871

Manatí, Puerto Rico

The British Museum (2012,4244.64)

 

This document is a slave register from Puerto Rico, part of the Spanish Empire, where slavery was only finally abolished in 1873. It contains the physical description of a twenty-five-year-old slave called Domingo and tells us who owned him and where he was registered. The abolition of slavery was one the most important achievements of the nineteenth century. The slaves on Haiti led a successful revolt from France and in 1804 the country became the first independent nation in the Caribbean.

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Certificate from the Slave Registry Office

Paper

AD 1828

South Africa

The British Museum (Af,EPH-AOA,B2.6)

 

This document certifies the birth of a boy, Abdel Sopar, in Cape Town on the 5th of January 1828. It lists the name of his mother, Carolina, and the name of the lady who enslaved them. Cape Town was originally a Dutch settlement, but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was captured by the British. Britain passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807, banning the slave trade. However, slavery was not entirely abolished in the British Empire until 1833. 

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Abolition of slavery medal

Bronze
AD 1834
United Kingdom
British Museum

 

This medal was made to celebrate the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended slavery in the British Empire. One side shows a slave kneeling in chains, with the inscription ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’. In Britain, this image and motto became central to the long campaign to end slavery.  The other side shows a scene of a freed slave, with his arms raised, showing the broken chains.

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Aftermath of the Mutiny in Secundrabagh, Lucknow

Photograph by Felice Beato
Albumen Print
1858
Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi

Execution of Mutineers’ from the Album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln

Photograph by Felice Beato
Albumen Print, 1858
Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi

 

An Italian-British photographer, Felice Beato (1832–1909) arrived in India in February 1858 to record the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857. He worked at Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow under the guidance of military officers. Beato restaged the conflicts in order to photograph them, constructing both the extent of Indian outrage and the indiscriminate massacres exacted by the British as retribution. The photographs were used to justify the wresting of control from the East India Company to the crown in 1858, making India a British colony.

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Friths Series

‘Firoz Shah’s Lat near Delhi, Height 42 ft. 7 in.’ (Asokan Pillar at Firoz Shah Jotla, Delhi)
From The Harkness Album
Albumen Print, Photographer’s Ref. 3116, about 1870
Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi

View of excavations west of the main Buddhist shrine, Sarnath, showing Lion Capital of Ashoka Pillar found in March 1905

 

Photograph by Frederick Oertel
Silver Gelatin Print
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

 

The Archaeological Survey of India was established in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham, who led excavations at famous Indian Buddhist sites like Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Bharhut. These two evocative photographs capture the rediscovery of India’s ancient history against the backdrop of British colonial rule. One is of an Indian touching a relic of his ancient past and comes from a commercial album. The other, by Frederick Oertel, was taken when he excavated the Lion Capital at Sarnath in 1905. In the years after these photographs were taken, the Sarnath Lion Capital went on to be adopted as the symbol of the new Republic of India.

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Desh Sevika

Paper
Early 20th century
Raja Bahadur Motilal Poona Mills Ltd.
CSMVS, Mumbai

 

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of new textile mills began to emerge in India. This advertisement depicts a new Indian woman. She is politically minded and stands beside a label that states that ‘the financier and owners of this mill are Indian…and that it operates as per Mahatma Gandhi’s directive’, clearly linking industrialisation with the project of nationalism.

Charka

Wood
1915–1948
West India
Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Mumbai

The charkha, or spinning wheel, was one of the most powerful symbols of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and politics. It was both a protest against Britain’s attempts to deliberately undermine Indian weaving and also a symbol of self-reliance. Gandhi encouraged people to spin for half an hour every day arguing that swaraj (independence, or self-rule) could only come from the commitment of every person to wear and use that which was made in one’s own country.

 

Independence

Attained on the 15th of August 1947, India’s independence also resulted in partition, with the country being divided into the states of India and Pakistan. India’s Constitution came into effect on the 26th of January 1950. This was a document shaped by the plurality of Indian religions, castes and identities, on the one hand, and the struggle for freedom from colonialism on the other.

After achieving freedom from colonial rule, every country must negotiate the challenges that come with independence, from the practicalities of establishing a new currency to defining the principles by which it is governed.

The struggle for freedom does not end with independence. The contemporary artworks that end this section present local stories with global resonances of our time exploring such issues as human rights, digital surveillance and migration.

An imprint of the Constitution of India

Photolithographed at the offices of Survey of India Published in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India
AD 1950 (original)
Illuminations supervised by: Nandalal Basu (Bose), 1883–1966
Calligrapher: Prem Behari Narain Raizada, 1901–1966
India International Centre, New Delhi

This is a facsimile of one of the two original copies of the Indian Constitution. It was drafted by a committee under the chairmanship of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and it came into effect on the 26th of January 1950. In as much as it protects and governs every Indian’s life, it is also dependent on every Indian being vigilant and seeing that the freedoms it secures are maintained.

 
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Indian banknotes

Banknote, five rupees, Republic of India
Issued by the Reserve Bank of India,
Bank note serial no. C/10 856789
Issue date: 26th January 1950
British Museum

Indian banknotes

Banknote, ten rupees, British India
Issued by the Reserve Bank of India
Bank note serial no. C/30 219166
Issue date: October 1944
British Museum

When India and Pakistan became independent nations they needed new banknotes to replace those used under British rule. On 1 July 1947, a committee was constituted to look into issues related to money in the wake of Partition and Independence. India carried on using the old designs issued by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for British India until 1949, when the first rupee one note for independent India was released with the national emblem, the Ashoka Lion Capital. By the following year, 1950, when the Republic was inaugurated, several other denominations were released, which included depictions of Indian landscapes, fauna and monuments.  

Pakistani banknotes

Banknote, ten rupees, Government of Pakistan
Issued by the Reserve Bank of India for the Government of Pakistan
Bank note serial no. J/32 937085
Issue date: August 1948
British Museum

Pakistani banknotes

Banknote, five rupees, Republic of Pakistan
Issued by the Government of Pakistan
Bank note serial no. DT 187342
Issue date: 1949
British Museum

 

Immediately after the partition, Pakistan continued using RBI notes with an image of King George VI with a 'superinscription' added, which read 'Government of Pakistan' in English and Urdu. Pakistan’s new banknotes were issued in 1948. This series placed the national emblem of an Islamic crescent moon and star on to the right and the denomination of each note in Urdu numerals on the left.

West and East German Banknotes

One mark
Paper
AD 1948
Berlin, Germany
British Museum

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West and East German Banknotes

One mark
Paper
AD 1948
Berlin, Germany
British Museum

After World War II, Germany was partitioned into West and East. Initially, Britain, France and the USA controlled the West, while the Soviet Union controlled the East. These one mark banknotes were both created in 1948 and were the first currencies issued by the two new countries. West Germany, led by the USA, was the first to introduce a new currency. This took the Soviets by surprise – since 1946 all parties had, in theory, been working towards a unilateral currency reform. In response, the Soviets hastily introduced a rival currency, the Ostmark (‘East-mark’), but were nevertheless highly critical of the USA’s decision, announcing that it ‘completes the division of Germany’.

Korean banknotes: 10 Won

Paper
AD 1959
North Korea
British Museum

Korean banknotes: 100 Won

Paper
AD 1965
South Korea
British Museum

 

After World War II ended in 1945, the former Soviet Union (USSR) occupied the north of Korea, while the United States controlled the south. The peninsula was formally partitioned into two countries, North Korea and South Korea, in September 1948. The red 10-won note was issued in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1959.  It shows the national emblem, Taedong Gate in the capital Pyongyang. The green 100-won note, dated 1965, was issued in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). It shows a portrait of King Sejong ‘the Great’ who reigned from AD 1397–1450. 

Cuban banknotes: One Peso

Paper
AD 1879
Havana, Cuba
British Museum

Cuban banknotes: One Peso

Paper
AD 1964
Havana, Cuba
British Museum

                                          

The first Cuban one peso banknote was issued by the Spanish Bank of Havana in 1879 and commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, who subsequently claimed the island for Spain. Cuba eventually achieved independence in 1902 after a series of wars with Spain and a period of US military rule.

The second banknote was printed by the National Bank of Cuba in 1964, after the Cuban Revolution. It recalls the fight for Cuban independence by showing a portrait of José Martí (1853–1895), the most prominent pro-independence leader and founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.

Independence around the world

One of the first things a newly independent country does is develop a new currency. Often the designs on this new paper money are used to legitimise rule and express identity. The Ghanaian pound replaced a scene showing cocoa being harvested on the old British twenty-shilling note, with an image of the new Bank of Ghana. In Angola, the portrait of Luís de Camões, one of Portugal’s most famous poets, on the 1000-escudo note was replaced on the 1000-kwanza note with an image of Agostinho Neto, an independence leader who went on to serve as the first president of Angola.

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Indonesian Banknotes: 

One Gulden

Paper
AD 1920
Indonesia
British Museum

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Indonesian Banknotes: 

One Rupiah

Paper
AD 1968
Indonesia
British Museum

Ghanaian banknotes:

20 Shilling

Paper
AD 1953
Ghana
British Museum

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Ghanaian banknotes:

One Pound

Paper
AD 1958
Ghana
British Museum

Angolan Banknotes:

1000 Escudos

Paper
AD 1973
Angola
British Museum

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Angolan Banknotes:

1000 Kwanzas

Paper
AD 1976
Angola
British Museum

 

Cloth showing Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana

Printed cotton
About 1957–1960
Accra, Ghanat
British Museum, donated by Mr E.D. Captan

Ghana was the first of the British African colonies to become independent on the 6th of March 1957. This textile features Doctor Kwame Nkrumah, who was the first Prime Minister of Ghana from 1957–1966. It also shows the Ghanaian coat of arms and flag. Ghana’s independence movement was influenced by that of India. On August 1947, in the wake of Indian independence, the first political party calling for the self-governing of Ghana was founded. Kwame Nkrumah and the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharla Nehru, also shared a close friendship.

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Barack Obama kanga

Printed cotton
AD 2008
Made in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; found in Nairobi, Kenya
British Museum

 

The design of kangas (East African garments), often reflects political and social change. This kanga celebrates Obama’s first election to the United States Presidency in 2008, and reads: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama’, and, ‘god has blessed us with love and peace’. Of partial Kenyan descent, Barack Obama was the first African American to hold the US Presidency. This kanga was printed in Tanzania but was worn throughout East Africa, particularly in Kenya, where his election was widely celebrated.

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Women’s cloth

Printed cotton
AD 1995
Ndjamena, Chad
British Museum

 

This textile commemorates Chad’s participation in the Fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The pattern shows a woman against a map of Chad and the slogan in French reads, ‘The Chadian woman towards the horizon 2005’. Chad gained independence from France in 1960. Despite civil war and instability, Chad established a Ministry of Social Affairs and the Status of Women. This represents part of a wider push for greater rights for women around the world in the twentieth century.

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How to Draw a Line Without Dots

By C.R. Nanaiah
Print on newsprint paper
2006
Kochi, Kerala, India
Collection of Naman P. Ahuja

 

During Indian elections, each voter’s fingernail is marked with indelible ink as she/he exits a booth, making it both clear that they cannot come to vote again and that they have participated. In the midst of this, the artist C.R. Nanaiah made his own posters, wryly commenting on the role of individuals in the democratic process. He inundated public spaces with these posters alongside those of politicians, reminding us that we are the ‘dots’ who will create the line.

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Untold Intimacy of Digits

Raqs Media Collective
Digital projection
2011
New Delhi, India

 

This artwork connects India’s colonial past with the present concerns of data collection and digital surveillance. The handprint belongs to the Bengali farmer, Raj Konai. It was taken in 1858, in lieu of a signature, under the orders of William Herschel, a revenue official of the Government of Bengal, as a means of colonial control. It is, therefore, one of the earliest uses of biometrics, an impression of a hand made by a person in power to identify and verify a human subject.

Timeless Pilgrimage I & II

By Betsabeé Romero
Tyre (rubber) and gold
AD 2014–15
Mexico City, Mexico
British Museum

Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Timeless Pilgrimage I & II explores the contemporary politics of migration on the Mexico/ USA border, where, according to the artist, road signs depict migrants as animals, presenting them as a hazard to local drivers. In Timeless Pilgrimage I, figures in pre-Columbian dress walk along a cyclical road which goes all the way around the tyre. In Timeless Pilgrimage II, groups of two adults and a child holding hands and running are interspersed with plant motifs.

 

Throne of Weapons

By Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester)
Metal, wood and plastic
AD 2001
Maputo, Mozambique
British Museum

© Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester)

This throne is made from decommissioned weapons collected after Mozambique’s civil war (1976–1992). In 1995 the bishop Dinis Sengulane set up the Transforming Arms into Tools project, which encouraged people to exchange weapons for agricultural and construction tools. To prevent the guns being used again, the artist Kester has welded the weapons together into a throne. In Mozambique, thrones are traditionally symbols of power and prestige, as well as of discussion and debate.

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Discobolus in Zhongshan suit

By Jianguo Sui
Bronze
AD 2012
China
British Museum

© 2017 Sui Jianguo / Asia ARM

This sculpture is based on the ancient Greek statue of Discobolus (discus thrower) – the bronze has been painted to resemble white marble. Jianguo Sui has dressed the athlete in a modern Zhongshan suit, an outfit associated with the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976).  Poised to release his discus while clad in constricting bureaucratic garb, the sculpture becomes a metaphor for the artistic constraints of communist-era China. It also provides a witty and ironic comment on the complex historical relationship between Asia and Europe.