Back in 2009, EAST produced an exhibition of contemporary work based on textiles, objects and other items from the Warner Textile Archive, based at Braintree in Essex. My interest in history led me to this furnishing fabric that probably dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Produced in France this printed cotton would have been a fashionable addition to the home of a very middling-sort of couple. I even speculated that it was the sort of item deemed appropriate as a wedding gift.
Gifts, as we know, often come in boxes and I therefore decided to translate the design on the cloth into a 3D object. This meant that I could incorporate another aspect of the story behind the fabric – an often unacknowledged or hidden history. A Dark Secret Behind a Thing of Beauty was the title of my response. I wanted to make a comment that it is all too easy to look at a piece of fabric and think of it just in terms of its design or its beauty – less so about the tragedy behind its manufacture. It was particularly important to highlight how what seemed quite an innocuous item was very probably the product of slavery.
Inside the box I created a copy of an image used by the abolitionists, along with the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Designed by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and turned into cameo brooches in the 1790s, these items would have been worn by the many women supporters as a means to raise awareness of this abhorrent trade. It took several decades to end the transportation of slaves, but even that did not end slave labour – and sadly it still continues today, in many forms. Slavery is often, but not always associated with race, but even when it is not, it is always about inequality and power.
Fifteen years ago I was able to travel to The Gambia and visit St James Island as it was then called. In the current political circumstances it seems the right time to show the quilts I made after the trip, As I would like to show support for the memory of all those who were enslaved and those who still are.
Visiting the Island, now called Kunta Kinte Island, was very moving, as it was the place where the Gambian people were kept before they were taken in Slave ships to the UK and then America. As I stood on the beach I found a very small bead, perhaps fallen from the necklace of one of the people, their necklaces were torn off them when they left.
A little history: The Island was captured by the English is 1664 and used then until the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. It is now called Kunta Kinte, after a character described in Alex Haley‘s book and TV series Roots, The book states that Kunta Kinte was among 98 slaves that the slave ship Lord Ligonier brought to Annapolis, Maryland in 1767.
I printed the fabric using ‘Break down screen printing’ with brick like shapes applied to the background to represent the ruins of the buildings where the people were kept. There are scraps of fabric sewn on to the Quilts to represent clothing left behind as the ships left.