Hawkins & Co, Kimathi Donkor. Courtesy of the artist.
The horrific legacy of slavery in contemporary society is the subject of a new group exhibition. ‘Hawkins & Co’ is at the Elspeth Kyle Gallery until 30 March, 2007.
Six artists are represented in the show: Larry Achiampong; Jean-François Boclé; Kimathi Donkor; Corrine Edwards; Joëlle Ferly and Tam Joseph.
The exhibition seeks to mark the bicentenary of the act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, and to explore contemporary responses to the moment. Most of the work was produced in reaction to the subject, and the process of responding is palpable in the artworks. Interestingly, none of the artists have sought to voice the lost individual narratives, instead focusing on the gaps and errors in the usual story, and in the curiously accepted and overlooked contemporary remnants of racism.
Larry Achiampong’s ‘Alternative School Story’ exposes the concealed account of slavery within an educational curriculum. The work is a hinged canvas on which the artist has (re)written ‘baa baa black sheep’ in a contemporary patois, extending and deepening the narrative on one side of the canvas. The opposite side holds the imprint of the words folded upon themselves, calling to mind those innocent butterfly pictures we all made at school, and also suggesting the lasting imprint of such delicately, unwittingly loaded and powerful words.
Swan Song by Larry Achiampong (2007). Courtesy of the artist.
Achiampong highlights the problems of teaching this history, noting the heroic status afforded to Elizabeth I and Christopher Columbus, for example, both of whom are obviously implicated in the shameful history of slavery.
This theme is also considered by Kimathi Donkor’s powerful work ‘UK Diaspora’. Immediately facing the visitor upon entering the gallery, the large scale piece is in fact made up of ten canvases grouped together to form a map of Great Britain.
Prominent figures in the story of slavery are re-imagined by Donkor, who uses modern references to contextualise the figures in contemporary society – the instantly recognisable Tudor roses on the skirt of iconic Elizabeth I are replaced by images of actresses who have played the celebrated Queen. In this way, the artist demands that the audience re-consider contemporary appraisals of Elizabeth I. Her powerful status as feminist icon conceals a dirtier role in the story of slavery.
Elizabeth Rex Lives by Kimathi Donkor. Courtesy of the Artist.
Each portrait is studded with nails, which the artist suggests alludes to the scared Kongo tradition of nailed Nkisi Nkondi objects – a practise which symbolises spiritual purification, chastisement and healing – and also suggests violence and sadism.
Donkor’s work allies and subverts artistic tradition from both cultures, but since each portrait is available to own separately, the work contains the ultimate possibility of being wrenched apart, and being deprived of the place which affords it context and wider meaning. In this way, the work can stand for the overwhelming displacement of slavery.
Either side of this composite image are paintings, vast canvases, depicting violent moments in the story of slavery. In ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete’ Donkor appropriates European neo-classical painting techniques to represent a hero of the Haitian resistance.
Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourette by Kimathi Donkor (2004). Courtesy of the artist.
This stylistic subversion cleverly uses the European tradition to re-write the accepted account to include usually overlooked figures. And the vast canvases depict moments of imminent horror leaving the audience wanting to conclude the narrative, and contrasting the beauty of the surroundings with the horror they contain.
On the opposite wall, Jean-François Boclé explores the contemporary echoes of the racism which obviously inform slavery. ‘Banania’ is a series of paintings made from Banania chocolate powder. Boclé argues that Banania is to France what Golliwog was to England. Iconic, intensively marketed and immediately identifiable on the continent, the packaging perpetuates the misrepresentation of black people.
Using the chocolate powder as a medium, and redrawing the packaging, the artist subverts the repellent iconography. In France, the work addresses cultural norms and symbols of colonialism. The meaning is extended in this exhibition because the audience is further alienated from the Banania story. Though, without the carrier bag containing the product hanging from an adjacent nail, the meaning could easily be lost.
Banania by Jean-François Boclé (2007). Courtesy of the artist
This is an interesting exhibition which speaks of the gaps and lies and oppression in the story of slavery. It charges the audience to question not only the accepted account and the status we accord to key figures, but also to consider the ways in which contemporary life bears the scars and remnants of this shameful period in history.
Dutch Clogs by Corinne Edwards (2007). Courtesy of the artist.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at the show, it is that the traditional white walls don’t quite contain the works. There is a cacophony of agitation and protest in this small gallery which may be better suited to schools and colleges. It would be good to see work like this challenging and informing and inspiring a new generation.