By Alexandra Shimo
The British Museum
October 6, 2011 – February 26, 2012
“The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is just as real as everything else in this museum…That I am an artist and not a historian, and this is an art exhibition does not mean it is less real. Reality can be new as well as old, poetic as well as factual and funny.”
With this, Grayson Perry opened his exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, snubbing the critics before they’ve even viewed the first ceramic. Perry, the transvestite enfant terrible, had already hyped the controversy, saying he went “mad” in the museum, and used whatever ancient artefact took his fancy. With his characteristic insouciance, he told the national newspaper The Telegraph that some exhibits look “amusing, a joke, a bit camp”.
Not very respectful to The British Museum, England’s crown jewel of cultural difference, especially since most of the campy artefacts in his show are based on sacred objects from other countries, or remnants of ancient civilizations his English homeland at times helped wipe out. But, there lies Grayson’s point. Museums flatten history, placing bits of culture in a storehouse for our immediate consumption. Removed from their original purpose, they allow the viewer to impose their own cultural framework and prejudice on what’s in the glass case. Perry exposes his knee-jerk reactions because they are common, and uncomfortable because they are our own.
Next to an intricate carved ivory tusk from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he displays a ceramic vase called I Have Never Been To Africa. It’s deliberately insensitive: the ceramic is lacquered with newspaper stories of African political and economic crises. At the top, lording over all, is a white woman wearing pearls and a hat: the British queen. If this seems colonialist, Perry’s genius is to pry open his narrow framework, arguing it is both prevalent and perhaps inevitable, given “the photos, stories, TV news” (says Perry) that surrounds us. We can try and escape these stories but, for Perry, it is more honest to simply weave himself into the narrative. Depressing perhaps, but Perry’s roving imagination flattens not only history but the conceit. In his skilled hands, the museum becomes a creative and colourful place where history, prejudice and humour swirl together in a strange tapestry of cultural richness.