This gorgeous sculpture from The Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is equally beautiful and sad. It is one of many sculptures created by the Birmingham trained artist Marguerite Milward in her attempt to create a record of the various racial types she encountered when traveling across Africa and through India.
In her book, Artist in Unknown India, 1948, Milward opens with the question:
‘Why should I not go back again to India and make a collection of the Primitive Tribes to be found there?’ (Milward, 1948, 1)
This lack of consideration of a reason why she should not undertake this work is indicative of the singlemindedness of her practice as an artist. Throughout the book she details the fear she was met with by sitters and potential sitters. She discusses how, Suni one of her first sitters was so fearful she came with her whole family for protection, that ‘her great eyes followed me about, obviously scared at what might happen next. Nevertheless, she stood bravely beside me, with her baby in her arms’ (Milward, 1948, 9-10) this model seemed coerced into sitting by the hotel manager, but Milward in her aim to make an encyclopaedic collection of busts did not consider the comfort of her sitters as important. The male model posing at the same time as Suni frustrated Milward because ‘he was afraid of losing his job of collecting wood in the jungle, an occupation which he regarded as more permanent than posing as a model. At last he ran away altogether and never came back’ (Milward, 1948, 9-10). While she details her frustration when people responded and reacted with fear, she does not reflection as to whether or not her incitement of fear while undertaking her artistic endeavour was anything to concern herself with.
Her aim with the busts she created, many of which were casts of faces smoothed over to appear seamless, was to find the best representations of racial types. She was always aiming to make ‘master pieces’, and her work was highly revered by her contemporaries. Displayed prominently in England, 30 of her busts were also purchased under the British Raj for the India Museum in Calcutta, where they were used as a scientific documentation of peoples who lived in the rural territories.
She would at one point describe a male model as having protruding eyes, which she would then describe as a ‘defect in the tribe’ (Milward, 1948,11), her subjective, aesthetic observations would be recorded as scientific. The figure with the defect she would also describe as ‘shifty and unreliable’ while Suni was described as, ‘a good type for sculpture in every way, with her high cheek bones and wide curly mouth.’ In these descriptions she creates a classification of good and bad representations of a race, and subtly constructs a narrative where the good representations also have good personal characteristics.
It is important today to consider how the assumption that someone can represent their race well or badly is a dangerous idea, and one that has contemporary repercussions. If physical characteristics are used to indicate intelligence or morality, we can see how type casting; racial stereotyping and misrepresentation occur. It also means if there is a perfect example of the race then there is a limit to the experience (perfection can be reached but never exceeded), which counteracts the understanding of individuality and humans as complex three dimensional beings, ever changing growing and evolving.
The Dancing Girl, from Cote D’Ivoire was likely afraid while sitting for Marguerite Milward, she was considered beautiful or a ‘perfect type’, but would she have any understanding of how her image might be used? Would she have been comfortable becoming a nameless, representation of her people to be looked at in a British museum?
Bibliography: Milward. M. 1948. Artist in Unknown India. London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd.