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'First Contact: The Cult of Progress' by David Olusoga - Review

The Cult of Progress is best described as a biography of human history. Olusoga writes about interactions, trades, wars, movements, and moments as if recounting his own life.

It moves chronologically and cartographically. It retells the stories that make the bigger picture of history with such accuracy and definitiveness it is as if Olusoga is recalling something that happened yesterday. Every sentence is a digestible fact that combines wider history with intimate, personal storytelling of the people of the past. Each story reaches into the present and is a result of some conclusion, some constant, about the world today. History and its results are analysed through trade, cross-cultural interactions, and intercultural opinions between nations.

This biography of the human world moves from China to Mexico, Japan, Portugal, Paris, and the front lines of World War II, seamlessly creating a thread between time and space using human interactions, attitudes, and conclusively: art. We are told of nations and cultures interacting through trade, cultural exchange, invasions, and religious conversions to create the infinitely diverse world we inhabit now.

Art is used for transporting a reader between era and place. The pictures paint history because it is the history that painted them. Summarising moments in time, attitudes, movements, and people, the significance of art is used to tell an immersive history of the world in its entirety. Olusoga takes the reader on side quests through the history of art. From Benin bronze to eyewitness paintings of Japanese trade ports welcoming the Portuguese, we see the violent, cultural, and political history that art is bound up in; looting, trading, and religion. George Catlin’s capturing portraits of the faces, individual souls and struggles of Native Americans and Gottfried Lindauer’s portraits of Māori people and leaders show cultures adapting to eras of transformational change and often violence. They preserve the memories of people who the artists couldn’t preserve the lives of. Nadar’s hot-air balloon ariel photography capturing the transforming Paris of the 1860s and Otto Dix’s haunting sketches of World War II tell us of the changes bought on to warfare, landscape, and humanity by industry and machinery. The passing of time is conveyed through art in a way that few other mediums can capture. Most overtly, Thomas Cole’s five-painting series The Course of Empire shows time passing through the same place. He uses five paintings set on one day (dawn, morning, afternoon, evening, dusk) and from one perspective of one landscape as a staged allegory. It comment on pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire leads to greed and inevitable decay. His art warns against the cycles of history ‘First freedom…when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption’.

Olusoga tells the history of art and uses art as history. There is a deeply intimate relationship between the two and the ability to capture one another. For example, despite the ravages of the industrial revolution on the serene English landscape, painters found that the smog created the most stunning sunsets – allegorical?

The Cult of Progress tells less known history and interactions between nations, beautifully condensed into art and intimate stories that tell of a wider narrative. Olusoga analyses visible components of art work to tell of these interactions; the expensive materials draped on the table rather than the floor, the fruits and spices on the table, the exotic animals, the map on the wall.

He also asks: "where are we in time? what is beyond the light coming in from the window?"