In a British restaurant adorned with an ancient floor-to-ceiling mural, an unsuspecting dining room unknowingly played host to a ticking time bomb of controversy.
This mural, which had stood the test of time for nearly a century, was the creation of a young artist by the name of Rex Whistler, who at just twenty-three years old, sought to capture the essence of grand adventures in pursuit of exotic foods and goods from distant lands. The artwork was christened, “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats.”
Though the mural was carefully restored in 2013, its troubling depiction of enslaved children and offensive caricatures of Chinese individuals went largely unnoticed until the summer of July 2021. Enter the “White Pube,” a group of self-proclaimed cowboy critics who, as Vogue Magazine noted, were determined to shake up the arts establishment. The group brought the mural’s outdated content to the forefront of public consciousness, describing it as the perfect backdrop for “rich white people drinking wine with some choice of slavery in the background.”
The ensuing uproar led to Tate Britain’s ethics committee, then led by Moya Greene, conducting a thorough review of the mural. The committee’s conclusion was unequivocal: the mural’s imagery was offensive. Greene even noted that the offense was amplified by the fact that the room was being used as a restaurant. Despite this damning verdict, the committee insisted that the artwork should neither be altered nor removed, as it remained under the care of trustees.
The once-beloved dining room, which had been frequented by elite politicians and arrogant art critics, now faced an uncertain future. Already closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant’s prospects dimmed further as the gallery anticipated a decline in visitors for the foreseeable future.
One British politician, Diane Abbott, called for Tate Britain to relocate the restaurant, expressing her shock at having dined in the presence of such repellent imagery. A growing chorus of activists created an online petition demanding the mural’s permanent removal, likening the dining room to a grotesque setting more fitting for a horror film than an exclusive dining experience at Britain’s largest art institution.
Once referred to as “the most amusing room in Europe” by Tate Britain, the gallery found itself at the epicenter of a cultural firestorm. In response to the controversy, Tate Britain released a statement acknowledging the mural’s deeply problematic racist imagery and vowed to continue actively discussing how best to address the issue. With the Mayor of London’s public realm review and the establishment of a race equality taskforce, the fate of the mural remains uncertain, though the gallery has promised to keep the public updated in the coming months.
“Tate has been open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery in the Rex Whistler mural. In the context of the Mayor of London’s recently announced public realm review, Tate’s establishment of a race equality taskforce, and the ongoing work of our Ethics Committee, we are continuing to actively discuss how best to address the mural, and we will keep the public updated over the coming months,” the gallery issued a statement following the controversy.