Bridget Minamore: Grey, like memory, white like history books. Gift from the new world that is old world to me. Large, unlike most quite large things, this is big. Crude like water spurting out of breasts. Crude like water flowing from a hole in a topless woman’s neck. Crude like grooves in stricken, drowning faces, crude like oil. Crude like something black that sits on water. Crude like a hangman’s noose on the right-hand side of a tree, sharks snapping under feet. Crude like me in a gallery, daughter of water.
These are the lines that came to me, stood underneath the Fons Americanus, Kara Walker’s new installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. It's an epic, 40 feet high fountain, dedicated the forgotten figures of transatlantic slavery and colonialism.
Vanessa Kisuule: We are all aware of the pain and the trauma of our past, and what happened to our ancestors. And to wear that in such an immediate way, everywhere you go, everywhere you walk, is to not function, right. So, if I'm honest, there is a part of me that has to switch that off, and shut that down, most of the time.
Hannah Catherine Jones: I think, Britain is beginning, maybe, to address these legacies of slavery and colonialism. It's tip of the iceberg stuff, though. It makes me think of this meme where British history, according to Britons, is represented by this fluffy little puppy. And then the other side of the meme is like, Britain in every other country’s history books, and it's this rabid, terrifying wolf.
BM: I love Kara’s work. She's a Black artist, making work about Black lives, and she makes our stories so huge, that they are impossible to ignore.
Kara Walker: Most of my work over the last 25 years, I guess it has been now, has been wrestling with how the past is remembered and forgotten, simultaneously. And I became interested in that as a teenager, moving to the American South, because it's a place that’s quite steeped in its own mythology, around race, and segregation, and slavery, and how it immortalised people.
Yeah, I guess, you know, I don't know what it's like to grow up here, I think that the UK maybe gets an easy pass, sometimes, from thinking about slavery, or it gets the, you know, abolition card. It seems, it could be very liberating to, you know, grow up here and not be sort of, like, asked to think about it. And then, here I come with this work, and I'm like, well just think about it.
BM: In each of our lives, our histories, we have things we want to celebrate and remember, and things we'd rather forget. But what happens when important histories are erased, and why are some stories easier to forget than others. This is the Art of Remembering, a Tate podcast.
BM: I'm Bridget Minamore, and I'm a poet from London. Growing up here, you're surrounded by statues, fountains, and monuments. It's only as I've gotten older that I've started to pay attention to who we put on plinths, and who we don't.
The Fons Americanus is based on the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace in London. It commemorates Queen Victoria, and the British Empire she upheld, but it doesn’t quite tell the full story. To check it out, we sent a few members of Tate Collective down there. Young 15 to 25 year olds, who collaborate with Tate on creative projects.
Libertee: I've never been here, so to be honest, you would think it would look like any other monument, but it's quite vast in comparison to other ones. And I'm quite short, so it's very, very tall in comparison to me, and I think that kind of represents her reign, because obviously, she was a big, big figure, and she was very powerful. And you really get the sense of that from this, because you feel that you're the lower figure.
Sai: I'm someone who's from the Caribbean, so when it comes to, like, monuments that represent colonial histories, it's quite conflicting feelings, I guess. Because a lot of people were abused, and were killed, and suffered, for us to be, like, Great Britain. So, I think there's a lot to dissect there.
Haris: Stature, and power, and empire, and blood, too, and slavery, they're all woven and threaded into the fabric of British history. Narratives are sort of heading towards a more modern attitude, in the sense that people are understanding and engaging more with the darker sides of history, that have either been covered up, or swept under the rug, or overlooked. I feel quite detached from it. It's kind of a capsule of a certain period of time in history. And I think, in that sense, it needs to be left alone, and sort of understood, and accepted, so we can move on.
BM: My parents are from Ghana. And from a young age, I got used to feeling disconnected from the figures I saw in statues. But when it comes to the legacies of slavery and colonialism, it's pretty hard to just move on.
VK: A letter to you. Here’s to the people who have at least 16…
BM: Vanessa Kisuule is a good friend of mine, as well as an amazing poet. She is of Ugandan heritage, and we've had a lot of chats over the years about the way our backgrounds sit alongside the art we make.
VK: …the accents that lilt, and swell, like an orgy of castanets, nibbling at…
BM: Vanessa lives in Bristol, in the southwest of England. And is the official city poet.
VK: …even the tallest, a most formidable of towers, was once just a pile of bricks.
BM: She told me all about Countering Colston, a movement to remove the icons and name of the 17th century slave-trader, called Edward Colston, from the city. I'm visiting her for a personal tour.
BM: Hi, how you doing?
VK: How are you, I'm good, I'm good. So, we’re on Colston Street, which is in a very central part of Bristol, we’re about five minutes away from the main Broadmead area, which is essentially the high street of Bristol. And this street is quite interesting, because it is pretty much end to end independent businesses and shops. So, I have a lot of fondness for this street in terms of what it represents in that sense. But its name is a very difficult, and fraught thing.
BM: Edward Colston made his fortune transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas. He also poured huge amounts of his money into Bristol, so his name is plastered everywhere. A recent campaign to rename the city’s main arts venue, Colston Hall, has created a knock-on effect.
VK: The big debate with Colston Hall was happening, and then not long after that, Bristol Yard had a complete refurbishment, and then renamed itself, so it was called the Colston Yard, until very recently. And I just find that really interesting, that it clearly created a domino effect of sorts, in terms of the general consciousness of businesses in the area. And this is what I mean about where does that end. I've not heard anything about the girls’ school changing its name, I've not heard anything about the statue being taken down, or having something put on it, in terms of a plaque that might acknowledge the history of Colston’s involvement in imperialism. So yeah, it's interesting how far these changes go. And what they ultimately mean, in terms of how people are reflecting on the history.
BM: I might feel a bit more sort of grey area around the practicalities of changing names, but I am really in favour of the campaigns. Because I think, at the very least, they inspire a conversation, that it's hard to inspire in any other way. People have actually started to engage with this idea of what it means to walk around in cities, in countries, that are just built on, I don't know, colonialism and slavery. And it is, and we don't really accept it. In the States, you know, they definitely have, I'm not saying it's necessarily better, but they definitely are aware of their history, of American history involving slavery.
VK: And I think it's because of the fact that the slavery itself was not occurring on this land.
BM: Yeah, of course.
VK: So, there's an ability to dissociate from the reality of it. Because in America, you can go and you can visit those former plantations, you can't escape it in the way that we can. Because, obviously, it was happening in these far away islands, and then we reaped the sugar, and the rum, and the tobacco, et cetera. But a lot of people that owned slaves in Britain, didn’t see these places, these far away islands, where people were suffering, once, you know. So, they just saw these people as, these vague pieces of property, on an island somewhere, that they would probably never visit. So, I think that’s why we have such a sense of convenient amnesia about it, because in terms of the very grounded geographical sense of place, we’re not able to go, right there is where this happened.
BM: I never learned about slavery or colonialism in school. In Britain, those histories feel very much, out of sight, out of mind. Which is why I love the written declaration that goes along with Kara’s work. She asks us to witness the Fons Americanus, the Daughter of Waters. To behold the swirling drama of the merciless seas, and to marvel and contemplate the monumental mis-remembering of colonial exploitation. It's an invitation for us to begin to see the figures, stories, and histories that have been obscured or hidden from view. And it's really powerful when we do.
HCJ: I was ten years old, I went Barbados with my dad, it was my dad’s first time returning since he'd left, to move to England. And we were driving around, and there was this roundabout, and then there was this figure, with arms upheld, chains broken, in this like heroic stance. I guess I'd never really looked up that far, a Black person in a sculpture, ever. And that had a very big effect on me.
BM: Hannah Catherine Jones is an artist, scholar, and composer. One of her recent video art performances was inspired by a monument to a rebel slave in the Caribbean, the Bussa Emancipation Statue.
HCJ: It was made by an artist called Karl Broodhagen. And it's to honour Bussa, the Bajan slave of Igbo descent, who led the 1815 rebellion in Barbados. And then, I've been able to come back and really research that in recent years. And I do a work called, Ode to Bussa, where it's kind of like a screen recording video of me researching, just googling, Bussa, and finding Wikipedia, and highlighting the information, looking at Google Images. And then relating it to things that are, or were going on at the time, contemporaneously, like Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance, where he and his band entered the stage as, like, prisoners. Or like, the British Black Panthers, like, who are these freedom fighters, how are they connected across time.
Every time I perform that work, it's about ten minutes, it's kind of a lament, where I just sing the name, Bussa, over and over.
HCJ: Because I want that name to have life breathed into it regularly. It's a meditation. And it's my kind of offering. And it's ongoing. The more I learn about different struggles, the more important it is to remind yourself of that. And, you know, maybe one day in the not too distant future, everyone will be learning about Bussa on the curriculum. So, these things really do matter, they really do matter, they can change the course of your life.
BM: These monuments and sculptures aren’t just dead objects. They do have the power to move and inspire us. And they're especially powerful when they represent the people on the margins.
Rene Matić: Do you remember Olive Morris, or her strength, or her pride? Do you remember Olive Morris, all the fire she had inside? Do you remember Olive Morris, all she did for me, and for you? Do you remember Olive Morris, could we be like her, too?
My name is Rene Matich, I'm 22, and I'm an artist currently studying in London.
BM: Rene designed a series of sculptures that commemorate the life of Olive Morris, a Black activist whose legacy is often overlooked.
RM: Olive Morris was a British community leader and activist in the feminist Black Nationalist, and Squatter’s Rights campaign of the 1970s. And she was really integral to British Black Panther movement, and helped a lot, a lot, a lot of people out. So, it's kind of wild, that a lot of people don't know who she is. So, I created four black Perspex fists, that stood outside the Black Cultural Archives. And the image of the fist has lots of connotation of power, connotations of Blackness, and strength. So, I took that as my symbol, I suppose, of Olive. But to connect it to her, I made it five foot two, which is her height, and also my height, which felt really important, to imagine her as a body, in a space, and a human being.
I think that sculpture can be incredibly helpful, and important, because it's a physical object that’s in a space, it takes up space. That was probably the most important thing about the piece, honestly. Because it stood in people’s way, and I wanted it to be, like, this kind of forest of fists, that you had to weave through, to get to the entrance of the Black Cultural Archives. And they're quite hard to ignore, and I think that that’s what’s the main thing. My main concern is, about these stories, is that we make them hard to ignore, and we make them impossible to forget.
BM: I'm totally with Rene, when it comes to celebrating forgotten heroes. But what do we do with the stories that hurt us, the monuments and statues that remind us our collective wounds? Personally, I'm a bit on the fence about pulling them down. But I didn’t think I'd feel so strongly about seeing the statue of Colston in Bristol. When I ended up standing underneath him, I actually felt a bit ill.
BM: He is looking down at us in a sort of pensive way. He's got a cane, his arm is folded across his other arm, he's dressed up, I think, I don't really know what 17th century fashion was like, but he seems like he's quite well dressed. And he's on this plinth that’s sort of surrounded by these carp, I think, large fishes with their mounds open, that look kind of grotesque, actually.
VK: Oh my god I love it – erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.
BM: Oh my god. See, that is just like…
VK: That’s actually mad, isn't it?
BM: I really dislike it; I really dislike it. I love sculpture…
VK: I will admit, and I feel very ignorant of this, that I've not actually read that until now.
VK: I've not read that, and that makes me want to vomit.
VK: It makes me really uncomfortable that you could be like a kid, or someone, or a tourist, and you're not going to sit and read a plaque, or multiple plaques about his, like, crimes, or whatever. But you just see this man, and he's important. And I think that, you know, I come from a culture where, like, names are so important, and faces are so important, and the way we speak things into existence is so important. And speaking this name, all the time, adds to a collective consciousness, even if people aren’t necessarily conscious of the specifics of this man. And seeing his face, the number of people who see his face on a daily basis, right, adds to him sort of staying alive, even in a small way, and I don't like that.
BM: I don't know whether, hmm, this might be a bit naughty, but I am a sneaky advocate of mindful vandalism, if such a thing exists, i.e. cutting through the grandeur of a statue by putting a traffic cone on its head. Which sounds silly, and juvenile, but I feel like there's something about that…
BM: …that’s really powerful.
VK: That’s totally valid, to me.
BM: It essentially means that, like, the public are able to engage with these statues, there's not this reverence around them of, we don't touch them, we don't mark them, we don't, essentially, exist to be in dialogue with them, you know. And I think it's our general attitude around art and history, it's this thing on a plinth over here, that us lowly people aren’t supposed to engage with. So, I really like it when we can intervene with these things. So again, I'm not necessarily for getting rid of statues, or commemorative things, I want people to scribble on them, to make counteractive art about them, to really engage with it.
KW: Those monuments, what they end up doing is they, they speak to no one, they speak to themselves. And they actually need to be in conversation, or in dialogue. They create tension, because they don't respond when we get angry with them. And then the only way we can get angry with them is to make then go away. If we remove it, what justice do we replace it with, what is the commitment that we replace it with? I don't know, I guess, it's almost like I have this kind of pathos for the fragility of that wish for the thing to be what it really is. For the Queen to really be what she is meant to be.
Isn't that sad that they have to hurt me, in order to rise above, isn't that too bad that we can't actually all be equal, here.
BM: The act of remembering can be painful, especially when we have personal connections to these histories. I wonder if Kara felt that way when producing her work. I definitely feel like I'm churning up a lot of difficult emotions when I write about these subjects myself.
HCJ: With Ode to Bussa, I was finding out things for the first time about enslavement, you know, when you're doing your research, that’s heavy. Especially when the reason you're, kind of, drawn to it is because you can recognise the echoes of that, quite profoundly, in your day to day life. That might sound over-dramatic, but it's true, you know. So, like, you have to kind of take breaks. I think, sometimes, it can be, it can feel like a really dangerous game, like your personal life, and your academic work are intrinsically linked in a way that, yeah, can be unhealthy. Especially if you don't take breaks, or if you do something too extreme. For example, staying on a former plantation in Barbados for five weeks. That needs so much preparation, breathing time around it. Don't expect that to be an easy thing to do.
As a diasporic person, or Black British, or mixed, Black Caribbean and white, or whatever, it almost feels as though it's not a choice, it's a necessity. It's almost a responsibility. So, for me, it's the only way – the only way – to go at the moment. Which is kind of a shame, because sometimes, you know, you're, kind of like, why can't I just make work, and it not be about Blackness. But the truth of the matter is, we’re just not there yet.
RM: That whole conversation that we get forced upon us, that dreaded question about slavery and pain, that’s actually not my story. It's my ancestors’ story, and it's a huge part of my strength, and my spirituality, and my energy. But I really love to talk about Blackness in a way that is shocking, and not shocking in a way that is about bad things. Shocking in a way that it's about really beautiful things that no one’s ever thought about before. Blackness is my flat, my dog, my, I don't know, these really nice jeans that I'm wearing. Those are all very material things, but no, Blackness is, it just is. We’re never going to be healed if we keep recycling, reusing language and images that are painful for us, and actually easier for the white gaze to look at. Rather than, for us to look at.
BM: I guess it's about finding the balance. When it comes to racism and oppression, unfortunately, the past isn't really over. So, I suppose I feel a sense of responsibility to speak out in my work. And sometimes that means going over a difficult subject matter. But art and creativity can also be a refuge and a safe space, and we need those, too. It certainly is for me, and Vanessa.
V: What I like about poetry is that, it's a place where language can do more unusual and unexpected things than we would expect in an article, in a newspaper. Whereas, poetry, I believe, is the language of feeling, of thought, which is weird, and tangled up, and…
BM: Messy, and…hmm.
VK: …and messy, exactly. I think we have to be armed with many things; I think the facts are important. I think historical specificity is important. But poetry, and art, is so integral to us making our peace with the complexity of this stuff. Because I think people are obsessed with wanting to know what is it, is it bad, is it good, did it happen, did it not happen. Am I the villain in this story or the victim, like, people really want to place things in specific boxes? And what art does is, it just goes, here’s one way of looking at it, here’s another way of looking at it, here’s six different things all happening at one. And you, as the viewer, or you as the reader, you are going to pick out what you are going to pick out, because of who you are, and that is okay. So, yeah, I think art has an interesting role to play in how we look at history, and it's nice to be an artist in that sense. I feel like we have a freedom to look at these narratives in a way that other people perhaps don't.
BM: Do you think art, then, has the power to help us heal from a kind of collective trauma that can be churned up every time we’re asked as, maybe Black artists specifically, to look at slavery and colonialism?
VK: Can I ping that question back at you, because I'm interested to know what you think. And then I might be able to offer my own thoughts. Because it's a big one and I'm not sure. What do you think?
BM: Oh, I think, art has the power to help us heal, but I don't think it should be burdened with…
VK: Yes, yes.
BM: …being a healing thing.
VK: That makes sense.
BM: And I don't think, anywhere near all art, has the power to help us heal. I think it's actually a very small minority of it. I think, inherently, art is not a mode for change, I don't think art is inherently powerful or healing. But it can be, and that’s exciting.
KW: As an artist, or a story-teller, I'm an unreliable narrator. And I think that that’s one of the problems that I've been kind of thinking about. Or, the problem that I've been thinking about, when it comes to talking about the past. It's, well it's never really past, in the first place, but it's very hard to grasp all of its particularities. It's so much easier to kind of have a blanket overview, this happened, and here we are. Because we need to know a little bit of something, in order to sort of justify, you know, the things that we do today.
That’s a good line to end on, because I have nothing more to say.
BM: Visit the free Hyundai Commission, Kara Walker, at Tate Modern, from 2nd October 2019, to 5th of April 2020. In partnership with Hyundai Motor, supported by Sikkema Jenkins and Co, with additional support from Tate Americas Foundation. The exhibition is curated by Clara Kim and Priyesh Mistry.
BM: You've been listening to The Art of Remembering, a Falling Tree production for Tate, produced by Zakia Sewell, executive produced by Hannah Geddes. With music by Vula Viel, and Ufa.
End of transcript
Why are some stories easier to forget than others? We speak to artists who are using their work to uncover the people who have been hidden from view.
Led by artists, poets and activists, we explore how art can be used to address the erasure of important events that has led to a history of ‘misremembering.’
The podcast is presented by poet Bridget Minamore. Featuring artists Kara Walker, Hannah Catherine Jones and Rene Matić, Bristol's city poet, Vanessa Kisuule and Tate Collective Producers Libertee, Sai and Haris.
The Art of Remembering is a Falling Tree production for Tate, produced by Zakia Sewell, executive produced by Hannah Geddes, with music from Vula Viel and Uffe.