Exhibiting Embarrassment (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 48)

This is the forty-eighth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


“Rex Whistler Restaurant” at Tate Britain

[Rex Whistler’s 1927 mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats in the restaurant of Tate Britain, London, has recently been called out for being ‘racist’ by campaigners such White Pube due to its depiction of enslaved Black children and  caricatures of Chinese characters…called out for being ‘racist’ by campaigners, such as White Pube.”, the ed.]


Exhibiting Embarrassment: Towards a position paper


David Dibosa


After the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol[i] on Sunday 07 June 2020, a series of debates was re-ignited in Britain, as well as across the world, in respect of historical memory around nation and slavery. Historian David Olusoga[ii] argued that it was right to remove statues commemorating slavers from public pedestals and put them in museums. There, he stated, they could be subjected to the correct level of debate. Statues on plinths were otherwise ’mute’. Removing troubled historical memories from open space deals with one aspect of the problem. What are museums meant to do, though, once the statues are there?


Pride and Shame

I start these reflections by recalling a memory stretching back more than five years: the evening of 15 June 2015 provided an unforgettable moment of intellectual pride for me. I took part in a discussion between two prominent artists, African American painter Jack Whitten and the British artist Frank Bowling[iii]. The debate was in one of the most salubrious settings that London’s museums has to offer: the Grand Saloon at Tate Britain. It was fitting to see two artists of such distinction, talking about issues that had faced their long careers: working with abstraction; being Black in America; the relationship between music and art. Watching the debate take place, from a high vantage point above the Thames, I had one of those rare moments during which I could glimpse how far I had come. I had reached the dizzying heights of the London artworld. Although I left the honour of chairing the debate to a colleague, I sat safely in the knowledge that I had been instrumental in making it happen.


My pride did not last long.

Sometime later, I looked back on the event, recalling its high points and, inevitably, reflecting on its lows. The evening of the debate stopped being a bright light out-shining everything else that had happened at the time. Step-by-step, I began to see more clearly all the comings-and-goings that surrounded it. I remembered how opportunistic I had been in those days – always looking out for ways of gaining advantage. I used to revel in the fact that I had a nose for rumours, catching the hint, long before anyone else, that the famed painter Jack Whitten was thinking of flying over to London. Those kinds of things made me feel part of a metropolitan buzz – being among the people who knew that ‘Jack would be in town’. It had been with the confidence of a nimble operator, that I had thought I could make a few skilful manoeuvres to pull off a glittering event. Somehow, I wanted my colleagues at University, the artists who taught there, ‘my people’, to be involved and, if I’m being honest, to see how I could get them some of the glory. As ever with nimble operations, I saw it as just a matter of tying up loose ends. The skill was in spotting them – and knowing which ones to tie. As luck would have it, at the same time as talk about Jack’s visit was rising, I heard another rumour that Frank Bowling was keen to hold an event in London, an artworld equivalent of an ambassador’s reception on a public stage. Who better than me, with all my connections, to pull the whole thing off?

With all the diplomatic sense of how to smooth a path, I approached my academic seniors to help get backing for my moves. In collaboration with Tate, the university would host an evening with Frank and Jack. As part of the usual niceties, there would be drinks and nibbles and, of course, a swanky banquet for a select few. As it turned out, the envisaged elegant dinner ended up being lunch, which Frank, due to his health, was unable to attend. Jack, though, would be there with his family. Generously, my Dean offered to host at the famed Rex Whistler restaurant. The meal went well, managing an unexpected level of homeliness which was aimed at snubbing the restaurant’s evident splendour. There was laughter, though, and, all-in-all, I achieved what I wanted, which was to give the day the sense of an occasion.

It was only years later, after hearing the sad news of Jack’s death from Leukaemia in 2018 that I thought back to that day at lunch. Much of my happiness was intact. I had managed to help stage one of the artist’s few public appearances in London in the latter phase of his life. There was no doubt that I had supported the cementing of Whitten’s relationship with Tate. Indeed, his work appeared together with Frank Bowling’s painting in the landmark exhibition Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern[iv], which opened in what turned out to be the last months of Jack’s life. My contentment should have been complete. Something was missing, though: in the time following the memorable lunch in the restaurant, I was reminded of uncomfortable truths that, perhaps, should have been at the forefront of my mind: there was an open secret around the Rex Whistler restaurant. The dining room’s famed tableau featured a disturbing scene, in which a young black boy is pulled on a lead as a slave. I had overlooked the image at the time of the family meal with Jack Whitten. A strange mix of excitement and embarrassment meant that I somehow managed to screen the tableau off in my mind. I didn’t hide it but nor did I draw Jack’s attention to it for fear of ruining the event. Somewhere in the hinterlands of my knowledge, hiding between tacit oblivion and turning a blind eye, lies the key to understanding how I behaved on that day. Looking back, my unfolding awareness cast a long shadow over my memory. Mixing melancholy with contentment, I was left with a sense of regret, even shame.


Exhibitions and inhibitions

I’ve often said that ‘every exhibition holds a set of inhibitions…’ With such formulations in mind, I’ve been speaking to an increasing number of people about the role that art and artefacts play in negotiating the shameful aspects of our deeply entwined histories. In such discussions, I’ve drawn attention to the ideas and assumptions that have allowed controversial objects to remain on public display. The inhibitions in question arise from the way in which the biographies of such objects interlace with some of the more troubled aspects of our history – a history that cultural institutions have, in the past, all too often sought to forget, hide or ignore: slavery, exploitation, enrichment and ritualistic violence. We are currently in the midst of discovering what will happen once we have the courage to expose practices that have attempted to obscure disturbing episodes from the past. It is difficult to know what happens next. Politicians have already made interventions[v], declaiming ‘woke militancy’, insisting statues need to be defended. Needless to say, such positions have been vigorously rejected[vi]. Regardless of the claims and counter-claims, there may be those who take dramatic action to barricade their views of history. Such retrenchment might not be enough to stop widespread ‘take-downs’ and a ‘cancelling’ of all those who sought to protect offensive artefacts. The question remains, will there be room left for the more nuanced arguments to hold sway?

A technical approach might sit among the array of nuanced arguments that would lead one to look at the motivations behind the preservation of controversial cultural artefacts: conservative perspectives on cultural heritage; liberal ideas insisting that a range of historical voices need to be heard; social democratic fears of gestures akin to totalitarian re-settings of history and ‘burning of books’. One could spend time debating such positions while weighing up the effectiveness of technical solutions: Could counter-monuments be erected near troublesome statues? Could one draw on the deep histories of Holocaust memorialisation to find effective interventions[vii]? Could one revisit what is written on plaques? Regardless of the debates surrounding such questions, recent activist intervention may have already been enough to convince broader publics that technical solutions are redundant. No amount of re-writing of inscriptions could ever be enough. The issues at stake are, perhaps, too large to be resolved by an innovative approach to putting sculptures on display. Regardless of solutions found or the action taken, this historical period invites us to consider a much more complex way of reflecting on the relation between history and visibility – posing questions to help us understand not just what we seek to reveal but how it is intimately connected to what we need to obscure.

The violence that often surrounds the accumulation of historic power cannot be disputed – this is particularly true in historic imperial projects, such as those enacted by Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other Western European powers. Artworks related to such power take on a more complex role. Such artefacts include statues dedicated to figures associated with military glory alongside artworks looted during intensive campaigns. The custodianship of such pieces often has to draw on the occlusion of violence and its ongoing effects. The question becomes what happens once one restores violence to its rightful place not at the margins of the object’s biography but at its centre? Such restoration is far from being a straightforward process. Accepting the violence of one’s history is troubling. Even the start of the process can be difficult because one has to first encounter the processes that have disguised the violence up to now. What has motivated such denial? What has kept it in place? The structures of denial that enable decisive occlusions to be made need to be understood in all their variety. The levels of their intensity, the extent and pace of their mutation from one context to another needs to be addressed. Such an approach suggests a moment of caution before statues and other monuments are removed. Might the disappearance of such objects also further distance us from the violence that such cultural objects were built to conceal?

The drive to bring more complex accounts of cultural production into public view has been witnessed recently in respect of black historical figures rather than those who perpetrated violence on them. Initiatives, such as Denise Murrell’s magisterial project, Posing Modernity (2019), have pointed to the work of institutional practice: “…institutional silence or blindness can be seen to render depictions of blacks…as unimportant, unworthy of attention.”[viii] The beauty of Murrell’s work is that it points to a hypo-visibility, challenging the practices that construct and enforce the recesses within which the presence of blackness has been sequestered. In doing so, she opens up the complexity of what it might mean to award such works a different kind of visibility, one that allows a hitherto repressed cultural hybridity to come to the fore. A creolised history of metropolitan culture is brought within reach by such scholarship. It, thereby, reveals a more complex and more complete account of the way in which pivotal objects within western art histories came to fruition. In many ways, such a goal is underpinned by a need to restore to its proper place what has hitherto been hidden.

The ‘restorative’ impulse, moving towards a more complex and thereby complete account of object biographies, is shared here. What is highlighted in the present discussion, though, are the possibilities offered by bringing to light not just what has been secluded but also the opportunities that emerge from revealing their structures of seclusion. In this regard, it might well be worthwhile promoting a discourse such as that which has emerged around embarrassment. One does so not as a means of overcoming the turbulence resulting from the revelation of questionable deeds. Rather, the whole point is to see what happens if practices are situated squarely within the arena of embarrassment and shame. What difference would it make to the current trajectory of policy and practice if a discourse of embarrassment were to be ‘outed’ as such? What would a ‘shame’ statement look like?

The terms, ‘embarrassment’ and ‘shame’ form part of a suite of discussions over the past two decades that have sought to grapple with the consequences of historical trauma. Even though the personal aspects of such phenomena remain a significant starting-point, writers have sought to move the debate away from any excessive preoccupation with subjective perspectives. Instead, they tend towards more inter-personal aspects, opening up the public and political dimensions of key concerns instead. Such emphasis can be seen in works like: Eve K. Sedgwick’s Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Elspeth Probyn’s Blush: Faces of Shame (2005), and Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (2006). Drawing on such work, I reached a reformulation of terms within my own research in Reclaiming Remembrance (2006, unpublished thesis, Goldsmiths, London). I suggested that it would be helpful to distinguish between ‘embarrassment’ and ‘shame’ by looking at the factors of intensity and duration. ‘Embarrassment’ could be understood as a temporary loss of standing – one from which a person or institution could recover. ‘Shame’, on the other hand, was seen as a crisis of legitimacy. Shame cannot be overcome, it can only be displaced through other events.

What are the conditions that befall an institution when it is in a state of shame or embarrassment concerning past or present action? The visceral responses to public statues and other cultural artefacts point towards a complexity beyond the binarism of ‘take-down and cancel’ or ‘leave everything in place’. Both attitudes, of course, get publicly highlighted. Widely exposed views within the media, though, show that there is a whole spectrum of opinion that is more nuanced. It could prove more useful to consider different registers of articulation: that which is neither affirmed nor rejected; the half-spoken; the multiple voice. A focus on public activism and the ways in which institutions ought to respond to it can lead to innovative policy solutions, woven between the two extremes of ‘preservation’ and ‘removal’. Beyond the policy work, though, there is more critical work to be done. The work of affect within organisational structure moves to the fore, allowing one to think of ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ in institutional terms. In doing so, one poses questions, such as: how does one identify different institutional registers at play? In responding to such queries, the hope would be that a range of protocols might be enacted to help institutions and those that work within them engage more fully. Such engagement must, of course, go beyond empty managerialism – the closing down manoeuvres, which so rightly get associated with discredited perspectives from the past. There is much more at stake than the immediate problems of limiting reputational damage and brand management. Rather, we need to start by understanding the effects that states of embarrassment and shame have on organisations as a whole.


Whose Memory? Whose Legacy?

I’ve often been fond of citing Salman Rushdie’s famous words: ‘the British don’t know their history because so much of it took place overseas.’ It’s difficult, though, to continue applying this to successive generations of Britons, as so many of us have a past from overseas and we know it all too painfully well. We carry a cultural heritage from the wide range of territories in which the British practised colonial violence. Those histories, of subjugation and subordination, of refusal and resistance, of negotiation and complicity, are now being played out. No longer is it possible to rehearse a history of Britain replete with the high levels of cultural amnesia seen hitherto. Sir Walter Raleigh’s association with the ‘potato’ cannot be considered without also recognizing the genocide wrought on the peoples who cultivated that crop. Heroes responsible for defeating armadas are also known to have enslaved and exploited. Even Shakespeare’s legacy seems tainted by the colonial fantasies evident in works like The Tempest (1611). Maritime power with its imaginary of sailing the high seas also implies an involvement in the terrors inflicted to establish military might. Distancing manoeuvres, enabling some to claim innocence of what happened ‘overseas’, are no longer tenable. This point in the early twenty-first century presents a turning-point for so many reasons: not least because it is a moment of return – what goes out must come home. Such journeying also points towards transformations – what returns cannot remain unchanged by its voyage. Seeing societal changes without understanding the fullness of what has driven them is difficult for a nation like Britain whose empire had such an extensive reach. The readiness to come to terms with what happened means that the work of acknowledging the unheard stories has to begin in earnest.

The work of recounting such histories began some time ago. The record of scholarship and cultural practice among black and other people of colour goes back a long way. The question now is who is listening to such stories and how are they being received. If there is too much of a rush to correct the record, to take things down and set things right, an important opportunity might be missed. This could be the time to experience shame and be humiliated by it. I use humiliation in the true sense of the word – finding a path of humility. Ending the aggrandisements of Empire and beginning to give form and purpose to a new role. There could be a chance now to take a long lingering look at the atrocities perpetrated, to move towards an understanding of the costs of such violence to those on whom it was wrought and to those who inflicted it, willingly or under duress. The long shadows of subjugation might finally be seen in sharper perspective than ever before. Through such recognition, the tensions involved in holding such phenomena at bay might finally be released. Until such time the effects of colonial trauma will continue to hold sway. Conflict, fear and resentment will remain below the surface of our social interactions before they erupt into violence – unexpected demonstrations, toppling of statues, civil unrest. The telling and hearing of the stories has to offer us another way.

Rehearsing traumatic encounters will require a new mode of audience. A performance of listening or a rush to bring conversations to a close will not serve. Instead, bringing into view a way of speaking and listening – a way of inhabiting – embarrassment and even shame becomes a useful way forward. Trauma undergone by individuals has now been recognized as having resonances at societal levels – war, holocaust, slavery and colonial violence shape personal, inter-personal and social psychologies. Embarrassment and shame can work in the same way. By recognizing the emotional labour involved in bringing embarrassment and shame into a social setting, we will begin to see the extent of its potential to produce transformations with increasing scope and intensity. By re-shaping public discourse so that there is a space to talk about an institution holding its embarrassment or recognizing its shame, we will see a generation of cultural practice no longer shaken by the toppling of statues or the exposure of artefacts but one setting the tone on how such turbulence can be worked through, at last, to peace.


[i] Bhambra, G.K., ‘A Statue Was Toppled. Can We Finally Talk About the British Empire?’ New York Times [online], 12 June 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/edward-colston-statue-racism.html

[ii] David Olusoga interviewed by Paddy O’Connell, Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4. 14 June 2020. 09:00-10:00 BST.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k1bm [accessed 14-06-20.]

[iii] https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/talk/painting-thoroughly-modern-frank-bowling-and-jack-whitten-conversation

[iv] Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (12 July – 17 October 2017. Tate Modern, London, Curators: Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley).

[v] On 16 January 2021, UK Government Minister Robert Jenrick published an article in The Telegraph: ‘We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past.’


Accessed: 28-01-21.

[vi] On 21 January 2021, Historian David Olusosga critiqued Jenrick’s position in an article published in The Guardian: ‘Cultural Warriors attacking ‘woke’ history care little for truth. It’s all political theatre.’


Accessed 28-01-21.

[vii] See, for instance, Young, James E., (1993), The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[viii] Murrell, D., (2019) (Ed.,), Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 2

Dr David Dibosa is co-author of Post-Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum (2013). David is Reader in Museology at the University of the Arts London (UAL). At UAL, he also leads the MA Curating and Collections at Chelsea College of Arts. He recently completed work as co-investigator for Black Artists and Modernism (BAM), a 3-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). As part of that project, he appeared on BBC4’s Who Ever Heard Of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History (July, 2018). He has also appeared as a judge on BBC1’s prime-time series, The Big Painting Challenge.

March 1st, 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 02