The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

As the discussion over the meaning and significance of statues wears on, Gaynor Tutani, who is currently completing a PG Diploma in Museum Cultures discusses the current Black Lives Matter Movement and how cultural institutions can engage with history and encourage more inclusion within the industry. 

Perpetual Histories

I have been here before,
You have been here before,
We have been here before.
How long will we have this same conversation?

I am tired. I used to feel the pain.
Now, almost, I do not feel!
I saw the knee heavy on his neck, everyone saw it,
but the knee is always on our necks.
We carry it daily.
It’s on my SKIN,
Engraved on my Bones,
And flows through my Blood.

I am Black. I am African,
You are African too,
Evolution says so.
But somehow my Black is an outcast,
To be feared, hated and killed.
Not only a physical death.
No, the deeper death,
One that TAKES my spirit, hopes and dreams.

Regardless, I fight. I push.
I continue to BE. For there is pride in my being.
There is pride in knowing my history and who I am.
I am more than Black!
My life matters, I am human,
Just like you.

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

How do I feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean to me as a Black woman and a British citizen with African origins? These are a few questions that have been playing in my mind following the passing of George Floyd. It has not been easy to digest his horrific death, and so, I have not really found any answers to my questions. Today we all call for change, but how is this change going to come about or is it even possible? I ask this because Floyd was one of many Black men that have died at the hands of White police. There have been women too, yet their stories do not receive the same attention. This is not to say that their deaths and lives were less important, but it highlights the fact that it is prevalent within the United States of America. I believe that this is why it bothers me, knowing that his story is yet another devastating headliner of perpetuated terror.

Historically Africans and those of African descent have suffered extreme injustices due to an adopted persistent backwardness based on geography and melanin. While the racists’ systems of slavery, segregation and apartheid have ended, we cannot deny their lasting imprints and legacies within our current political, socio-economic and cultural societies. Deep psychological traumas continue to affect Black people – inherited from their ancestors, termed by Dr Joy DeGruy as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Although she coins it “Slave Syndrome”, I believe that the crippling impact of trauma should be considered with regards to all western encounters with Africa and its diaspora. This includes colonisation and its destruction of Africa as a whole. Therefore, when I think about these histories and the Black resistance movements that occurred – such as the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, both in the 1960s –  it is disheartening  that in 2020 a movement called Black Lives Matter is even necessary to counteract current racist systems.

Nonetheless, despite this dim reality, I am encouraged by the movement’s momentum and the level of scrutiny currently on equality and social justice. But I am also concerned that this focus on racism is an unsustainable banner.

How long will the discourses continue without positive, tangible change? How do we end this perpetual cycle of action and reaction? As a keen student of history and a cultural facilitator, I believe that museums and other cultural institutions can make lasting contributions and be an example of the change we need, via a true engagement with our society. One that does more than tick the boxes of inclusion and diversity, but actually acknowledges our society’s unique cultural fabric and how it came about. We have to honestly discuss controversial topics such as racism and its intricate connection to our lives. I believe that art can inspire and change people’s perspectives and understanding of their world. Consequently, museums and curators should do more to address difficult issues within their curation and programming.

This has been my mission as a curator and co-founder of EARTHworks a curatorial duo that organically formed with my partner, Jean Joseph (a visual artist and cultural facilitator; @artmaroon). Together we have hosted and organised exhibitions, talks and events that delve into similar topics such as race, culture and history. Currently, we are working in partnership with arc Gallery to realise an exhibition that investigates the complexities of colonisation. Reading from scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop and Mandivamba Rukini, just to mention a few, the project draws upon theories of existentialism, as a means to discuss notions of identity. It aims to highlight how cultural institutions and those working within the arts can address uncomfortable narratives. In short, the exhibition comprises an academic interrogation of how history has shaped the lives of Black and Brown people, which sometimes is not included within museum exhibitions dedicated to people of colour.

The above comment is not an attack on museums. There has been an improvement within their structures, but I believe more can be done, especially within the operational field. There is a significant shortage of Black and Brown curators and general programming staff within museums. Although there has been a rise in exhibitions for/dedicated to people of colour, the fact that these showcases are not directed or led by those they claim to represent is problematic. Therefore, even though many museums have been working on decolonisation agendas within their operations, the extent to which these methods are effective are minimal if the decolonisation does not involve those that have been colonised by the very imperialist structures of museums.

Further, discussing issues of decolonisation within museums, Tristram Hunt, (Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum ) in his newspaper article on restitution and repatriation of previously looted collections within museums, argued that it was not possible to decolonise or return some artefacts due to the fact that losing them would be to disregard museums’ historical ties with empire. As a result, he contends that to “decolonise is to decontextualise” since the rise of empires was closely linked to collections.

Consequently, Hunt urges museums to find the right balance when dealing with their collections and the historical narratives behind them. In a way Hunt’s argument shows the reluctance of the West to relinquish its colonial hold. He proposes better museum practices and claims that the V&A has made procedural progress. However, his current idea of loaning artefacts to their countries of origin is condescending. Why should they borrow what rightfully belongs to them? Hunt’s solution does not solve the problems or issues pertaining to restitution, which I believe can be resolved if there was a commensurate staffing of people of colour within museums and galleries. Their voice, experiences and knowledge are paramount when deciding how these collections can be returned or respectful partnerships be formed with their countries of origin.

As a Black cultural curator, and being aware of the historical race debate within the arts and cultural scene, I am in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as a vehicle to address social injustice. If change can be achieved at all, I believe that it can, and should, start with productive conversations within museums and heritage institutions.

Gaynor Tutani is a student on the Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Cultures in the Department of History of Art, and an independent curator. You can read more about her work and encounters with art and museums here: https://fambaneni.tumblr.com/

Further information:

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To lie about History – Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gabriel Burne, an MA History of Art student, discusses the legacy of the historical figures whose statues have been removed and how the current debates around these monuments should encourage deeper discussion about Britain’s violent and racist past. 

“The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe.” Allegedly this was said during the trial of Shanley v. Harvey, a case where a British man, Shanley, was attempting to recoup a substantial sum of money given to Harvey by Shanley’s niece on her death bed. The basis of the claim was that Shanley had bought Harvey as a child slave to England some 12 years earlier and given him to his now deceased niece. I heard it quoted during my undergraduate degree in History in a debate about the role that slavery played in the UK economy. Even though many slaves were bought, sold and owned on the British Isles, the quote was employed as evidence of Britain’s relationship to slavery being distinct from that of the United States. Whilst the quote was likely never uttered, and the sentiment it reflected false, its popularisation reflects this Island’s complex and unresolved relationship to its violent and racist past. Much of Britain’s history of racial violence is hidden, existing only as ghosts haunting the otherwise heroic narrative of Britain and its heroes. When I embarked on a Master’s degree at Birkbeck in History of Art, it was these ghosts I wanted to know more about, in an effort to reinsert the lives and horrors which these spectres recall back into popular British history.

For many of us in Britain, our understanding of racism is taught from the perspective of the United States. The civil rights movement – Martin Luther King, the KKK, Malcolm X and segregation – are all things many in the UK have an understanding of. They are core aspects of our national curriculum and whilst they teach us important lessons on white supremacy, they create a sense of separation from the problems that exist here in Britain. To learn more about how we honour and adulate those who created this system of white supremacy in the UK, I took a module called “Slavery and its Cultural Legacies.” My reading for the course took me to some of the black theorists writing in the US currently – particularly Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. Whilst their writing was specifically speaking to an American experience, I felt there was a lot to be learned from their ideas here in the UK. Sharpe and Hartman speak of “the wake” and “the afterlife” of slavery respectively. Slavery’s violence lives on in white supremacy, a condition which is constitutive of contemporary Britain. The Research Project that I am currently writing examines the British monuments that often honour and/or neglect to acknowledge racial violence as part of the individual championed legacy.

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

In February this year, I went to the London Docklands Museum organised as part of the module. We were taken through the museum’s exhibition on slavery – London, Sugar & Slavery. The exhibition itself speaks of the ubiquity and brutality of the slave trade in the UK and is situated in the very building that was a hub for receiving the imported goods from Britain’s slave plantations. Whilst the museum takes steps to foreground black voices and highlight some of these hidden histories, a walk onto the docks outside the entrance reveals some stark reminders of this unconfronted violence. A cocktail bar serves “plantation punch” as a drink on the menu. And towering just in front of that sits a statue honouring prominent British slave trader Robert Milligan, who by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

I stared up at the dead metal eyes of Milligan looking out across the docks, posed as if smiling upon an arriving ship, bountiful with the fruits of his murderous plantations. The plinth on which the statue stands illustrates his achievements with a relief that depicts Britannia seated on her tame-looking British lion, whilst the female figure of commerce offers her riches and at her feet three cherubs help carry the bounty. The mast of an approaching ship is visible in the background, the very ships whose docking in Greenwich Milligan would have cheered.

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue.

In romanticising the wealth men like Milligan brought lady Britannia, statues such as this obscure how this wealth originated in racial violence – the lucrative cargo carried aboard these ships, and which both Milligan and Britain celebrate, were produced by the enslaved. The continued existence of these statues’ silences new voices and alternative histories under the weight of the historical indulgence upon which Britain’s current power structures relies, that of a grotesque imperial and racially violent past located elsewhere, in far-off lands.

When I embarked on researching the Milligan statue, along with the statues of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, George Floyd was still alive. The protests catalysed by his murder at the hands of three police officers have since led to each either being removed or torn down by activists. This totally unforeseeable set of events taking place as I research these statues has left my project at an incredible crossroads that changes from day-to-day. The removal of the Colston statue in Bristol by activists, followed by its symbolically poignant casting into the harbour, prompted the Milligan statue to be removed by the local council days later. It has just been announced that the Cecil Rhodes statue that sat on Oriel College and has for years been the subject of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, will likewise be removed. Commenting on these events, the Prime Minister stated that to remove these statues is to “lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come.” This statement is reminiscent of the same mental gymnastics performed by the relief that sits below the Milligan statue. Rather than being moved by watching the monuments to these men fall and cheering what is, at best, a small step toward confronting this violent past, Johnson continues the exercise of obfuscation. Not once does he mention precisely what he thinks this history is, yet he claims it to be the “truth”. To engage in the actual process of discussing this history is to highlight what these statues hide: that of a British slave-trading and imperial past not confronted, and the “afterlives” of the British slave in which non-white people in this country must live.

At the time of an anti-racist uprising alongside offering solidarity to America, we must also reflect on the constitutive role slavery and white supremacy have played in British history. As the actions of many demonstrators have movingly and powerfully shown, it is imperative to reflect on what voices are hidden when men like Colston, Milligan and Rhodes are celebrated. We must remind ourselves that the enslaved also breathed the UK’s air “too pure.”

Further reading:

On the British abolitionist movement and the Haitian revolution 

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Random HouseNew York, 1989)

US Black studies theorists and the afterlives of slavery 

Saidiya V Hartman Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007)

Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016)

Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

For British involvement in the slave trade

Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Verso, London, New York, 1993)

Catherine Hall Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016)

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