Radical Objects

Radical Object: A Nice Cup of Tea? Everyday Ceramics as Sites of Empire

The study of material culture has led to some superb work on radical ceramics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Researchers have shown that quotidian items were often decorated in support of radical movements, carrying calls for political and social change. The subversive potential of these objects was amplified by their ubiquity; messages in support of the abolition of slavery or social reform were juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the items on which they appeared.

But what about ceramics with no overt agenda? At first glance, this tea bowl and saucer appear to be far from radical; they certainly bear no abolitionist motto or cap of liberty. They are the kinds of objects that many of us have seen in museums and historic houses, and which often seem inaccessible. Usually presented solely as fine and luxury goods, they are seldom interpreted with reference to means of production, power, or imperialism. Yet as fashionable commodities they represent some of the many ways in which empire appeared, and was normalised, in British homes.

Teabowl and saucer c. 1758-60, WA.1957.24.1.533 Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

The commodification of the bitter trinity of chocolate, coffee and tea introduced new rituals of consumption to Britain, which soon became bound up with projected notions of civility and politeness. These rituals not only increased demand for the goods themselves—and sugar to sweeten them—but were also accompanied by a host of objects for their preparation and presentation.

A project in Oxford is seeking to use these objects as a basis for discussions of Britain’s imperial agenda. A Nice Cup of Tea has partnered with the Ashmolean Museum to explore the imperial context of its ceramics in a community co-curated exhibition. Opening in May 2019, the exhibition will take place in the European Ceramics Gallery alongside the Marshall Collection, one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of early coloured Worcester porcelain. Working with artists Lois Muddiman and Enam Gbewonyo, and local community group BK LUWO, the project recontextualises these artefacts by placing them alongside narratives about the historical acquisition of tea and sugar, and a striking installation of exploding tea-cups.

A Nice Cup of Tea is challenging school students, families, and museum visitors to think about empire by reconsidering the national obsession with tea drinking. It juxtaposes the civilised accoutrements of the tea table with histories of the human trafficking and mass-enslavement that underpinned the sugar industry, and the corruption and violence which secured access to tea. Visitors are encouraged to consider the dialectic between violence perpetrated at the geographical fringes of the British Empire, and the projection of civility and gentility which arose around taking tea ‘at home’.

The idea came from looking at the Ashmolean Museum’s collections of eighteenth-century porcelain and wondering: what could be discovered from putting these objects into their wider global and social context?

Sugar bowl and cover c. 1767-8, WA.1957.24.1.126 Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

This porcelain bowl evokes European Enlightenment culture, and belongs to the polite rituals which arose around taking tea. But it was designed to hold sugar, the prized tropical commodity produced in the British West Indies by trafficked and enslaved Africans. Fashionable accoutrements such as this bowl were one way in which the product was distanced from the violence perpetrated in its acquisition. Families with connections to transatlantic slavery and the East India Company frequently bought elaborate dinner and tea services adorned with their coats of arms as an attempt to proclaim their civility and legitimize their wealth. A Nice Cup of Tea seeks to place these kinds of objects within their imperial contexts.

A Nice Cup of Tea is also hosting a series of ‘Tea Parties’, including two at the Pitt Rivers Museum, featuring exhibition banners introducing the British imperial efforts to secure sugar and tea. These events—at which free trade tea and sugar are served—have also included spoken word performances by Euton Daley and Amantha Edmead, and have involved discussions with over 300 visitors.

The clarion call for institutional decolonization has never been louder, and there is groundbreaking interventionist work being done on museum collections all over the world.  Likewise, many historians are disrupting Eurocentric narratives around taste and luxury, challenging prevailing cultural hegemonies, and attempting to understand the myriad ways in which Britain was and remains a colonial space. A Nice Cup of Tea seeks to contribute to this process, providing a space to interrogate some of the uncomfortable truths behind our everyday cuppa.

The Nice Cup of Tea project was developed by Myfanwy Lloyd and Angeli Vaid of Oxford Arts Consultants with research carried out by Oxford University PhD students Mimi Goodall and Elisabeth Grass.  The project has been working closely with partners across Oxford, including the Oxford Windrush Planning Group, chaired by Junie James, Director of the African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative. The group brings together community organisations, Oxford City Council, Museum of Oxford, the University Museums, the Oxford University History Faculty and independent activists.

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