While exploring the Leicester Museum & Art Gallery 12 years ago, trainee curator Tara Munroe came across a pile of abandoned oil paintings. The disturbing scenes they depicted would change the direction of his career and may soon alter broader attitudes towards art history.
The paintings depicted rich colonial life in South America and the Caribbean and had been marked for destruction by the gallery. But the images, each of which subtly scales racial and social distinctions, spoke clearly and powerfully to Munroe.
“For me, they are beautiful paintings but they contain a very dark message,” she told the Observer as she prepared for the first public exhibition of the unrestored paintings, in Leicester in the New Year.
Now an expert on black heritage and director of Opal 22 Arts and Edutainment, Munroe doggedly pursued 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 and museum to save the works that had initially been classified as unpleasant and irrelevant, and then she began trying to find out who had painted them and why. In recent months she has secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to hold another larger 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 believed that there are only around 100 complete or partial paintings known from anywhere, giving the Leicester discovery international significance.
“I want to help people understand the history of racial stereotyping in colonial times and how the color bar actually worked. I would also like to link it to the academic discipline of critical race theory,” Munroe explained. “I come from a mixed Caribbean background myself, although I have paler skin, so I know it’s important to study how color has been used. That’s why the paintings touched me so much,” she said.
The reassessment of paintings that Munroe set in train is an example of reinstating prejudiced art into the visual arts canon, or even “non-cancellation,” and it remains an unorthodox, sometimes controversial, approach.
Some of the terms used then are now considered offensive. “The mulatto is always understood,” Munroe said. “And there are others like Lobo, or wolf, as someone was called half Indian and half black. I want to get away from those labels without losing the story, and to be honest, I scratches my head on the best way to do it.
Munroe, who grew up in Luton, has Chinese and African heritage, and remembers at school other pupils asking what she was like. “My mother would just say ‘green with pink spots’, but that didn’t really help me,” she recalls.
Casta’s paintings date from the 1600s to the early 19th century and were designed to show racial and class divisions in the 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 found by Munroe, which also express contemporary concerns 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 greatest interest in this story is how it shows that we see things differently when we come from a different point of view,” says Munroe. “A lot of people had looked at these paintings before, and they were just used to train image 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 when different people work somewhere.
After restoration work is complete later next year, Munroe is planning a series of events and lectures with the aim of understanding the progression of academic attitudes toward racial identity.