By Tunji Bada
Slavery was abolished 200 years ago but how do you make an exhibition about it appealing without resorting to the over familiar shackles and chains?
“Why is it that when the subject of slavery comes up we automatically think that it is a black subject?” asks Zoe Whitley, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Uncomfortable Truths – the shadow of slave trading on contemporary art and design. “Like the Holocaust it should be something that is not confined to history books and all of us see as very important. Why don’t we look at slavery as a human issue?”
The mention of an exhibition on slavery does raise images of shackles and chain-ganged black Africans being whipped and put on board slave ships heading for plantations in America and the West Indies.
It is seen as an event that occurred for a fixed period in time with Britain being the main culprit when in fact Portugal, Spain and France were involved too. However Denmark and Britney Spears would not automatically come to mind.
Denmark has the unique distinction of being the first European country to abolish the slave trade (but not slavery) in 1792 even though they did maximise their profits by ramping up trade in slaves before the law came into effect. However Denmark acknowledges its role and commissioned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui for an art project.
El Anatsui used pieces of driftwood that he happened to find on the Danish coast. He stood them upright, charred and marked them in such a way that they look like a clan of survivors. Such is the power of the suggestiveness of the work that it is even possible to make out a pregnant woman.
There is a surprising, and refreshing, lack of sentimentality in the works of Uncomfortable Truths. Take for example American video artist Michael Paul Britto’s film which shows black slaves dancing choreographed moves to Britney Spears’ hit I’m a Slave 4 U. As Zoe Whitley states, “There has been an evolution in the way young people deal with these harsh topics.
It is not about making light of the subject but about treating it in a new way that ends up showing some of the ugliness of the subject all the more.”
This sideways approach to slavery was also taken by Turner prize nominee Yinka Shonibare MBE with his headless sculpture of an archer dressed in period costume but made from African textiles, Sir Foster Cunliffe Playing.
Zanzibar born artist Lubaina Himid has about ten paintings depicting slaves having various professions like toy maker, ceramist, herbalist and painter.
British artist Anissa-Jane has stuffed the seats of antique chairs with coffee beans and re-upholstered them in her signature material brown paper that represents the skin.
Works by these artists will be displayed as interventions in the beauty and splendour of the British Galleries as literal and figurative ways of putting blacks and servitude, and gains of the leisured classes from the slave trade, in the context of British history.
But were these artists selected simply because they were black? “The only criterion was that the work be really strong,” was curator Zoe Whitley’s response. “These are works by established and new artists that have been produced in the last five to 10 years and could stand alone whether they were exhibited last year or shown this year or next year.”
Proof that selection was based on merit and not skin colour was the inclusion of white German artist Christine Meisner. Displayed is her video tale of a Nigerian slave who returns home to Lagos after 30 years in Brazil only to realise that his friends and family connections have gone and that he has become more Brazilian than Nigerian. He later established a Brazilian community in Lagos which thrives to this day.
With Uncomfortable Truths purely contemporary approach to dealing with slavery it is easier to see that slavery is not a monolithic subject that occurred for a fixed period in history. “It is the human story of survival,” comments Zoe Whitley. “What man is capable of doing to man. This is really important for us to look at in a much broader way.”
Uncomfortable Truths is running at the
Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London
20 February – 17 June 2007.
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