Civilisations: Episode 6, First Contact

Civilisations Episode 6
Picture Shows: Presenter David Olusoga with various Benin Bronzes, Unknown Artist (c. 1550 – 1650) – British Museum, London. Image Credit: BBC/Nutopia.

David Olusoga is the presenter this time around as he looks at art that has been produced when different civilisations collide.

He begins with his own personal relationship of seeing the Benin Bronzes, which shocked Victorians at the time as they couldn’t believe an African culture could have made such a thing, and saddens him as they are in the British Museum rather than back in their Nigerian homeland. However, these bronzes (or rather brass alloys) did influence the Portuguese, to the point that Lisbon became the most multicultural city of its time.

Olusoga also returns to the Dutch later in the programme, as they were the first western culture to meet with Japan, and the only European country who could trade with them after Japan shut its borders. The Dutch brought back artistic styles to Europe while the Japanese took on western perspective styles.

Elsewhere there was the much more catastrophic meeting between the Aztecs and Spanish, but they were still able to produce new styles of art, from the artist El Greco’s paintings of Christ relating to Aztec blood sacrifices, to the Mexicans mixing their old religions with Catholicism to celebrate things like the Day of the Dead. Then there is the British in India, where the art begins to depict the changing relationship between the two countries, and Olusoga ends with the British bringing their style of architecture to dominate India as they begin their rule.

The first of Olusoga’s two episodes certainly feels like a strong one with a powerful one, with a multicultural message. As he points out, even Japan never fully closed its borders and art styles were still traded between themselves and the Dutch. You get the feeling that his message is that even in the most trying of relationships, exchange and trade can help to create new things. Even if you try to close yourself off from everyone else, you will still accept new ideas. The problem comes when one culture tries to force its view of the world on another.

Civilisations is on BBC Two at 21.00 and the entire series is on BBC iPlayer.