Two hundred years after the bill outlawing the British slave trade was passed by Parliament, the V&A is marking the event with an exhibition of work by eleven contemporary artists from Europe, Africa and America. Their work draws
directly on the legacies of imperialism and slave trading, prompting the viewer to consider the impact of slavery historically and in today’s world.
The V&A has commissioned new works by four leading international artists. Former Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare MBE will display Sir Foster Cunliffe Playing, a headless archer dressed in period clothes made of African textiles. Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé will create a sculpture of a huge serpent for the John Madejski Garden. Fellow Beninese artist Julien Sinzogan’s mural of a slave ship below deck will be in the Grand Entrance. British artist Keith Piper will create pieces in response to the V&A’s own collections in a series of interventions entitled Lost Vitrines.
American artists include Fred Wilson who represented America in the 2003 Venice Biennale. Wilson’s Regina Atra, a sumptuous copy of the British Royal crown encrusted with black diamonds, will be on display. Video artist Michael Paul Britto’s irreverent and thought-provoking film of black slaves dancing to the Britney Spears hit I’m a Slave 4 U will be on view for the first time in the UK.
Other African artists are Ghanaian El Anatsui, one of Africa’s foremost contemporary artists, and Tapfuma Gutsa, one of the most exciting sculptors working in Zimbabwe.
European artists will include Lubaina Himid who will be displaying over a dozen of her life-size, painted figures of black slaves from the series, Naming the Money. Emerging British artist Anissa-Jane will show recent works that incorporate materials of the slave trade such as coffee beans and cocoa butter;
and German artist Christine Meisner will show her film documenting the life of a Brazilian slave.
The works will be displayed throughout the Museum, drawing attention to the hidden, overlooked and even contentious histories that link some of the historic objects on permanent display to the slave trade of past centuries. A series of trails will lead visitors to objects in the collections that will underline this theme.
Curator Zoe Whitley said: “We hope these contemporary interventions will encourage people to think about slavery in today’s world as well as its historic connections to British culture. This exhibition shows up some uncomfortable truths, such as how the lifestyle of the privileged classes was dependent on the suffering of slaves.”
Uncomfortable Truths is part of a nationwide initiative to commemorate the abolition of slavery, ‘Remembering Slavery’.