The toppling of the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was the most recent, and dramatic, exposure of the city’s failure to confront its colonial past and acknowledge the source of the wealth from which it prospered – transatlantic slavery and the trade in goods that this enabled. Following decades of frustration at this civic denial, the direct action of consigning the statue to a watery grave vividly confronted the ‘white blanket of forgetfulness’ that Gilane Tawadros referred to in 1994 when discussing the legacy of Britain’s imperial history, which, she writes, ‘Just like granules of sugar dissolving without trace in a sea of tea leaves … has all but disappeared from popular consciousness. We would rather succumb to the lure of sweet oblivion than linger over bitter remembrance of things past and now forgotten’.1
This quote is from the publication that documented and reflected on Trophies of Empire, an artists’ commission project that took place in 1992-93 in Liverpool, Bristol and Hull, port cities emblematic of Britain’s colonial past, the first two being deeply involved in transatlantic slavery, the third as the constituency of William Wilberforce MP, known for his role in the abolition of the trade. Artist Keith Piper proposed the project to Liverpool’s contemporary arts centre, Bluecoat, who extended the collaboration to venues in the other cities. Piper’s starting point was the imminent Columbus quincentenary, the 500th anniversary in 1992 of the ‘discovery’ that opened up the Americas to European exploitation, genocide and colonisation. Trophies of Empire was a project about remembering, or more accurately about reminding and revealing.
The curatorial intention was to commission artworks that reflected the legacies of Britain’s colonial exploits – its ‘trophies of empire’ – that continue to resonate in our cities and towns, as manifested for instance in street names, monuments, museum collections, or in the presence of diasporic communities from former colonies. We opened up the project to other artists through an open commission process and fifteen new works resulted, with exhibitions at Bluecoat in Liverpool, Arnolfini in Bristol, the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull and interventions at Merseyside Maritime Museum and Wilberforce House, as well as live art performances. The works interrogated histories, tracing the residues of colonialism and locating them critically in the present, in the familiar, to reveal ways in which Britain’s story of empire permeates its political and cultural landscapes. A common thread in the artworks was references to imperial symbols, many of which we take for granted: public statues, civic buildings, the tea we drink, holidays abroad, or exotic house plants.
Trophies was a different model to the then predominant black artists’ group exhibition in that the commissions were open to any artist, a recognition that the history of colonialism and empire is a shared one, something that the events in Bristol and Black Lives Matter protests and campaigns have articulated, with action being taken by a broad alliance of anti-racists, not just by those affected by racism.
There is not room here to discuss all the commissions, so I have highlighted individual works that have a particular resonance today. At Arnolfini, ‘Commemoration Day’ by Bristol-born artist Carole Drake confronted the city’s amnesia in relation to Colston, the slave trading benefactor of her old school, one of many Bristol institutions endowed with his name. The installation comprised a bed of chrysanthemums – his favourite flower apparently – which pupils of Colston Girls School wore on commemoration day. The flowers were left to die on the gallery floor over the course of the exhibition, and behind them an image was projected of school girls clambering over his statue. A replica of the now familiar statue hung from the ceiling, casting a dark shadow on the projection.
Also in Bristol, Bandele Iyapo’s mixed media performance, ‘Footsteps of the Hummingbird’, involved local people from St Paul’s and Easton in a celebration of their cultural vitality, while at the same time interrogating the continuing legacies of slavery and the city’s refusal to acknowledge its part in the trade.
Keith Piper’s video piece, ‘Trade Winds’, installed at Merseyside Maritime Museum in a space that would later become the International Slavery Museum, was especially pertinent in its historic quayside location, close to where slave ships once departed. The installation included 12 rough wooden packing crates housing upturned video monitors on which played a dissolving montage of images relating to global trade: a relentless flow of sales ledgers and goods, the human body and text fragments. Piper’s intention was to show the underlying concept of the system of slavery within colonial trade ‘echoed in contemporary shipping and global markets.’2 Using digital processes to create the work, the artist referenced capital’s use of high-tech computerised telecommunications – ‘the characteristic technology of the new imperium’3 – but disrupted the smooth flow with the savage realities of the enslaved experience.
At Bluecoat, New York-born artist Rita Keegan’s installation, ‘Cycles’, traced her own family history back to slavery. Her great, great grandmother, born in 1830, was the daughter of a white woman and an enslaved African, and the work sought to ‘personalise the issues of the African diaspora’.4 Reviewing it, Sean Cubitt noted how the work represented ‘the persistence of the colonial and enslaved past in the present’. A single video showed family photographs and historical images relating to slavery, its monitor set on a pedestal on a mound of sand whose surface was splashed with paprika, turmeric and cumin. This was surrounded by a curtain of ‘African’ fabrics (designed by Europeans for the African market), together with acetates printed with autobiographical and familiar slavery images, and tar-stained ship’s ropes scavenged from Liverpool docks. Their smell, combined with the spices, created a powerful aromatic presence that added to the work’s sense of memory and evocation of elsewhere.
Also at Bluecoat, Liverpool-born artist Paul Clarkson’s series of large history paintings deconstructed the city’s official history of its colonial role. The work countered the way slavery had been downplayed, and the marginalisation of local black communities, with Clarkson’s own personal and cultural identifications, informed by an awareness ‘of the history of the city’s prosperity at the expense of the suffering of my ancestors’. 5
At each venue, ‘The Trophy Cabinet’ by South Atlantic Souvenirs & Trouble (graphic designers from Liverpool and Manchester) was shown. Three commodities enabled by colonialism – tea, sugar, tobacco – were re-packaged to resemble commercial products, presented in a vitrine and also available to buy. Each contained a souvenir picture card and these could be collected and stuck into an informative booklet, to tell the still-unfolding story of ‘500 years of imperial violence, pillage and mayhem around the globe’.6 The work’s irony was not appreciated by everyone, one reviewer noting, ‘The combination of this appalling data with rather jaunty grocery packaging seems almost grotesque; and some at the show found it hard to stomach’.7
Donald Rodney’s installation at Arnolfini, ‘Doublethink’, elicited a similar reaction from some visitors. Comprising shelves and vitrines crammed with tacky sporting trophies, each affixed with aphorisms such as “Black culture has become exchangeable because it is a commodity”, the work sought to deconstruct negative stereotypes of black culture. Contextualising the piece, Rodney wrote, ‘A black sportsman can receive both cheers of appreciation and taunts of racial abuse. This truism is entrenched into the contemporary fabric of black life’. 8
In a multi-media ‘Vimbuza’ ritual in 1988, Liverpool performance collective Visual Stress had ‘cleansed’ the Bluecoat building – a former charity school funded largely by eighteenth-century Liverpool maritime merchants – of the taint of slavery. The group’s commission for Trophies was a day-long motorcade, ‘Mobile Auto Mission’, through the streets of Liverpool in the run up to Christmas, stopping at 12 patently imperialist buildings or sites considered complicit with the festive season’s consumer madness, where actions took place to highlight these contradictions.
28 years on, Trophies of Empire can be seen as a model for collaboration between artists and curators in different cities with shared histories, coming together in response to a political moment that demanded action through creative interrogation of the past in the present. Most of the commissioned works were temporary, ephemeral, many surviving only in documentation. All however remain compelling, an inspiration perhaps for a new generation of artists (and exhibition makers) committed to art for social justice.
Trophies of Empire publication can be viewed on the My Bluecoat website.
- Gilane Tawadros, ‘Sweet Oblivion’, in ed. Bryan Biggs, Trophies of Empire, Liverpool: Bluecoat and Liverpool John Moores University School of Design & Visual Art, in collaboration with Arnolfini, Bristol and Hull Time Based Arts, 1994, p. 17.
- Piper interview Frieze No 6, September/October, 1992, p. 45.
- Sean Cubitt, ‘Going Native: Columbus, Liverpool, Identity and Memory’, Third Text No 21, 1992, pp. 108-110.
- Rita Keegan, ‘Cycles’, in Trophies of Empire, p. 52.
- Paul Clarkson, ‘The Witness & The Observer’, in Trophies of Empire, p. 40.
- South Atlantic Souvenirs & Trophies (Rick Walker, Steve Hardstaff, David Crow), ‘The Trophy Cabinet’, in Trophies of Empire, p. 62.
- Rosie Millard, ‘A voyage across the trade routes’, The Independent, 11 November 1992.
- Donald Rodney, ‘Doublethink’, in Trophies of Empire, p. 60.