Monumental Sculpture Reimagines ‘The Last Supper’ With Black Historical Figures

Tavares Strachan’s “The First Supper” took four years to sculpt and is now on display at an exhibition in London

Full sculpture
The First Supper (Galaxy Black), Tavares Strachan, 2023 Tavares Strachan and Perrotin / Glenstone Museum / Jonty Wilde

The Royal Academy of Arts in London has unveiled a monumental bronze sculpture that reimagines Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Created by Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, the piece—titled The First Supper—is part of a new exhibition on art and colonialism. The work replaces the 15th-century painting’s subjects with Black activists, artists, scientists and other prominent figures. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I takes Jesus’ place, while Strachan himself replaces Judas.

“All of us make mistakes,” Strachan tells the Guardian’s Skye Sherwin. “Who is not Judas?”

But art historian Alayo Akinkugbe has another take: “Rather than betraying the messiah, Strachan betrays history’s status quo by bringing to light these marginalized figures in a composition that is typically associated with Christ and his disciples,” she writes in the exhibition catalog, per the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris.

Close-up of sculpture
The sculpture depicts Black activists, artists, scientists and other historical figures. Tavares Strachan and Perrotin / Glenstone Museum / Jonty Wilde

Other figures in The First Supper include abolitionist Harriet Tubman, activists Marsha P. Johnson and Marcus Garvey, politician Shirley Chisholm and nurse Mary Seacole, among others, according to a statement from the museum.

“[These figures] have in common histories of overcoming power structures designed to keep them oppressed,” adds Akinkugbe.

Strachan remembers a print of the original Renaissance masterpiece hanging above family pictures in his grandmother’s home. “I always thought, ‘Why are all these Europeans hanging over a family of people from West Africa in the Caribbean?’” he tells the Guardian.

According to Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred, Strachan’s work was further fueled by research into Matthew Henson, a Black explorer who traveled to the North Pole with Robert Peary in 1909. While history commonly credits Peary for reaching the North Pole, Henson’s name is often omitted from the narrative.

Foods on table in sculpture
Even the foods depicted in the sculpture are tied to the themes of the exhibition. Tavares Strachan and Perrotin / Glenstone Museum / Jonty Wilde

The First Supper, billed as Strachan’s “most ambitious and substantial work to date,” took four years to create, and every detail is significant. The food depicted on the table includes African rice, breadfruit, catfish, chicken, cocoa, custard apple and soursop. Per the museum’s statement, “These foods consumed in the Caribbean have been traced to Indigenous and African influences, along with the histories of enslavement and indentured servitude.”

The exhibition featuring the sculpture, called “Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change,” is an exploration of “art and its role in shaping narratives in Britain around empire, enslavement, indenture, resistance and abolition,” per the museum’s statement. The show includes works by 25 contemporary artists, which are displayed alongside pieces by 33 artists from the past 250 years.

Dorothy Price, the exhibition’s curator, tells the New York Times’ Farah Nayeri that the show isn’t “trawling back over a long-dead” past; instead, it’s contrasting old and new works to provide a more accurate narrative of “multicultural, multiracial Britain.”

Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change” is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through April 28.

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