What a New Exhibit Reveals About Britain’s Relationship With Islam

Screenshot from V&A website. (Photo: V&A Museum)

John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911) was a British Imperialist artisan, designer and curator. His life and work was to collect, curate and promote Indian art and design, mainly in the Muslim-majority Punjab region, which is now divided between Pakistan and India.

From January 14 to April 2 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London held an exhibition entitled Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London.

The exhibition featured chairs, prints, wall hangings and other pieces of art either collected by Kipling or produced by him or in collaboration with him. A movie played on a screen highlighted some of the grandeur in Lahore, capital of the Punjab region.

It touched in passing on the impact on Indian manufacturing of Kipling’s work, which to a large extent was collecting and copying Indian designs later to be mass produced cheaply in factories in the English Midlands, harming local producers.

The exhibition also highlighted the work of several Indian artists and showed Kipling’s work creating “Indian Rooms” for his royal patron. Several other contemporary Indian artists were also highlighted in the exhibition.

The central takeaway from the exhibition is to reassess the relationship Western countries have with Islamic communities. Britain, along with other Western countries such as the United States, has a long history with Islam. The British Muslim community today is largely, although by no means exclusively, of Pakistani descent. Extricating contemporary issues of integration and extremism from Britain’s imperial past is impossible. This does not mean that extremism is simply a blowback against colonial policies or that everything is the fault of the West. The exhibition showed how good work and enriching cultural exchange can and did happen even in a context of imperialist exploitation and racial oppression. Positive strains taking place within that context cannot be ignored either.

Kipling founded the Journal of Indian Art which promoted the work of Indian artists even as the empire benefited from their work. As the exhibition rightly notes, his life and work are still controversial in India today.

We have to honor the long shared history of interchange and interaction without denying either the racist and exploitative policies of the 19th century or the many individual cases of positive interaction which took place.

Awareness of and engagement with this long history will help efforts to improve integration. By moving the discourse away from one of focusing on antagonistic dynamics of counter-extremism on the one hand and racist oppression on the other we can edge relations towards a healthier dynamic of cultural interchange.