For more than a century, the portrait of Thomas Picton hung in a prominent position at the National Museum Cardiff, the image’s description hailing him as a military hero rather than a tyrant and a torturer, before it was removed from view in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
From Monday the two-metre-tall portrait of Lt Gen Picton is back on display in the Welsh capital – but in a very different context.
After months of consultation and anguished debate, the portrait has been hung not in the museum’s grand Faces of Wales gallery but in a modest side room, and is contained in a specially built travel case made of softwood and scraps of plywood, with a strut covering the figure’s bulging groin area.
It is surrounded by vivid descriptions of Picton’s brutal treatment of the people of Trinidad when he was governor at the turn of the 19th century, including the torture of Luisa Calderón, a 14-year-old girl of mixed heritage.
To reach the portrait, the visitor passes through two other rooms packed with a pair of thought-provoking, specially commissioned works by artists who are from Trinidad or have strong connections to the island, as part of an exhibition called Reframing Picton.
Dr Kath Davies, the director of collections and research at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales – said she felt the packing case symbolised the notion that the Picton portrait did not necessarily and automatically have a permanent home at the museum. “I think it’s showing that nothing is fixed, it’s a dynamic process, she said. “The conversations will continue to develop as we move forward.”
Davies was also pleased that the strut hid what she called Picton’s “tassels and testosterone”.
The saga over the portrait of Picton, who was originally from Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales and was the highest-ranking British officer killed in the Battle of Waterloo, has parallels with that of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which was toppled and thrown into Bristol harbour.
Bristol city council set up a commission that decided the statue should be displayed in a city museum – horizontally and still daubed with paint – and its former plinth topped with temporary artworks but sometimes left empty.
In Cardiff the national museum worked with youth members of the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP), which was set up to represent African diaspora groups in Wales, and the Amgueddfa Cymru Producers, young people from across Wales.
Fadhili Maghiya, the chief executive of the SSAP, said it was important that Picton was not hidden away but present so that the story could be spoken about. “That feels crucial,” he said. “There might be misconceptions that we are seeking to rewrite history with this project. However, that is far from the truth. Reframing Picton aims to rewrite our future by challenging the way we engage with history.”
The first room the visitor enters is full of brightness – and horror. It is an immersive work called Spirited, created by Laku Neg (Black Yard in Haitian Kwéyòl), a group of four UK artists, three of whom are of Trinidadian heritage. The visitor winds their way through bamboo frames decorated with twisted paper to learn – and feel – the story of Luisa and two other girls, Thisbe and Present, who were victims of Picton’s brutal regime.
It does not shy away from the terrible way Luisa, after being accused of theft, was tortured, hung from a scaffold by her wrist for almost an hour, her entire weight being supported on an upturned wooden peg.
Among the many striking elements is a cabinet full of objects from the museum’s collection that tell stories of slavery, repression and colonisation, from sugar cutters to a case of hummingbirds collected from Trinidad.
In the second room, The Wound is a Portal is the creation of Gesiye, a multidisciplinary artist of Nigerian heritage from Trinidad and Tobago, whose response to the Picton portrait includes tattoos, performance, drawings, film and documentary work.
As well as launching the Reframing Picton exhibition, the museum is at the start of a 10-year project “decolonising” its whole collection by re-examining every item, from its stuffed animals to many pictures.
When the Picton exhibition ends in a year’s time, the two newly commissioned pieces will form part of Wales’ national collection – but what happens next to the Picton portrait is still up for debate.
Meanwhile, in the spot where the portrait used to hang is a picture of a more down-to-earth and less controversial Welsh figure, the hedger and ditcher William Lloyd, by Albert Houthuesen.