The First Supper: Haile Selassie Takes Center Stage in Strachan’s Majestic Sculpture

Haile Selassie, the revered Emperor of Ethiopia, takes center stage in Tavares Strachan’s monumental sculpture, “The First Supper, 2021-23,” recently unveiled in the Royal Academy Courtyard. This significant artwork, created by acclaimed interdisciplinary artist Tavares Strachan (b. 1979, Nassau, The Bahamas), is an integral part of the upcoming exhibition, “Entangled Pasts: 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change,” set to open on Saturday, the 3rd of February.

Nestled within the Royal Academy’s Annenberg Courtyard, Strachan’s masterpiece represents his most ambitious and substantial work to date, meticulously crafted over four years. It breathes life into Haile Selassie’s enduring legacy while embodying Strachan’s profound interest in the notions of visibility and invisibility, bringing to light individuals and communities whose stories have long been marginalized or forgotten.

“The First Supper” serves as a symbolic representation of what Strachan describes as a utopian gathering. This extraordinary tableau unites historically significant figures from the African continent and its diasporas, with Haile Selassie at its heart. Joining the emperor are sculptural portraits of other luminaries such as Zumbi Dos Palmares, a valiant resistance fighter; Mary Seacole, a compassionate nurse; and renowned activists like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Marsha P. Johnson. The assembly also includes explorer Matthew Henson, astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence, politician Shirley Chisholm, musicians Sister Rosetta Tharpe and King Tubby, and distinguished poet Sir Derek Alton Walcott. While some of these figures enjoy widespread recognition, others have regrettably faded into the recesses of history, their stories waiting to be rediscovered.

“The First Supper” is a powerful homage to the act of communal dining, emphasizing the pivotal role of shared meals in forging and nurturing social bonds. Strachan eloquently describes the act of sharing food and conversation as an integral part of the human experience. The specific culinary elements adorning the table hold profound spiritual, philosophical, and ideological significance, enriching the sculpture’s narrative. Among these offerings are African rice, breadfruit, catfish, chicken, cocoa, custard apple, and soursop, all of which have deep roots in Indigenous and African influences, intertwined with the histories of enslavement and indentured servitude. For instance, enslaved individuals carrying African rice played a pivotal role in expanding rice cultivation during the Atlantic slave trade in the Americas. These subtle yet vital references imbue the sculpture with a deeper engagement with themes such as technology transfer, Indigenous knowledge, and human agency.

Strachan’s choice of cast bronze, embellished with a radiant gold patina, pays homage to Africa’s rich material cultures and historic trade networks. It harks back to the earliest and most sophisticated bronze works found in Africa, dating to the tenth century, marking the inception of lost-wax casting techniques in bronze sculpture production. Certain figures and intricate details are adorned with gold leaf, a material laden with cultural significance. As Strachan aptly notes, “gold is one of Africa’s most abundant natural resources and has indelibly shaped its history and its people throughout time.” During the Middle Ages, West Africa emerged as one of the world’s foremost exporters of gold, attracting European voyages to the famed ‘Gold Coast’ in the fifteenth century.

The overarching exhibition, “Entangled Pasts: 1768-now,” in which “The First Supper” plays a central role, delves into the realm of art and its profound role in shaping narratives in Britain, particularly concerning empire, enslavement, indenture, resistance, and abolition. In its entirety, “The First Supper” serves as a poignant acknowledgment of these intricate historical narratives, all while beckoning toward the uncharted stories and conversations that await exploration in the future


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