While exploring the Leicester Museum & Art Gallery 12 years ago, intern curator Tara Munroe came across a pile of abandoned oil paintings. The disturbing scenes they portrayed would change the direction of his career and may soon alter broader attitudes towards art history.
The paintings represented 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 assesses racial and social distinctions, spoke clearly and powerfully to Munroe.
“To me, they are beautiful paintings but they have a very dark message in them,” she told the Observer as she prepared for the first public exhibition of the unrestored paintings, in Leicester in the New Year.
Now a black heritage expert and director of Opal 22 Arts and Edutainment, Munroe stubbornly continued her research into the origin and significance 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 originally been classified as unpleasant and irrelevant, then she started trying to find out who painted them and Why. In recent months, she has secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to organize 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 a hundred or so complete or partial paintings known anywhere, which makes the Leicester find of international significance.
“I want to help people understand the history of racial stereotypes in colonial times and how the color bar actually worked. I would also like to tie it to the academic discipline of Critical Race Theory, ”Munroe explained. “I myself come from a mixed Caribbean background, although I have paler skin, so I know it’s important to study how color has been used. This is why the paintings are so connected to me, ”she said.
The reassessment of the paintings put in place by Munroe is an example of re-integrating prejudiced art into the visual arts canon, or even of “renunciation,” and it remains an unorthodox, sometimes controversial approach.
Some of the terms used at the time are now considered offensive. “Mulatto is always understood,” Munroe said. “And there are others like Lobo, or wolf, that’s what someone was called half Indian and half black. I want to get away from those labels without losing the story, and for to be honest i am wondering what is the best way to do it.
Munroe, who grew up in Luton, has Chinese and African origins, and remembers her classmates at school asking her what she was. “My mom would just say ‘green with pink spots’, but that didn’t really help me,” she recalls.
The Casta paintings date from the 1600s to the early 19th century and were designed to show the divisions of race and class 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 biggest interest of 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 that comes when different people are working somewhere. “
After the restoration work is completed later next year, Munroe is planning a series of events and conferences aimed at understanding the progression of academic attitudes toward racial identity.