In the 15th and 16th centuries distant and disparate cultures met, often for the first time. These encounters provoked wonder, awe, bafflement and fear. And, as historian of empire David Olusoga shows, art was always on the frontline. Each cultural contact at this time left a mark on both sides: the magnificent Benin bronzes record the meeting of an ancient West African kingdom and Portuguese voyagers in a spirit of mutual respect and exchange. By contrast we think Spain’s conquest of Central America in the 16th century as decimating the Aztecs and eviscerating their culture.
But David shows even in Mexico rare surviving Aztec artworks recall a more nuanced story. He travels to Japan to explore how the Tokugawa Shogunate, after an initial embrace, became so wary of outside interference that they sought to cut ties with the outside world. But in their art, as in their trade, they could never truly isolate themselves from foreign influences. By contrast the Protestant Dutch Republic was itself an entirely new kind of creature: a market driven nation-state. It was a system that created new freedoms and opportunities as embodied in the world-infused art of Johannes Vermeer, or the watercolours of the naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian.
David ends with the transitional story of the British in India: at first the British were as open to foreign influence as the Dutch. But by the 1800s they became more aggressive and the era of encounters gave way to the era of muscular empire, that was dismissive of India’s arts and cultures.