What do you know about the transatlantic slave trade? It’s a huge piece of British history that many people don’t really seem to understand and that needs to change.
A new project, The World Reimagined, aims to correct the record of “the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and its impact on us all”. Founded by Dennis Marcus and singer Michelle Gayle, the initiative uses art to communicate its message: it installs more than 100 globes across the country, each containing commentary by artists and creatives on the slave trade, as well as their past, present, and future relationships with Great Britain.
The aim is to create a knowledge base about the transatlantic slave trade in the United Kingdom. Although this historic event overlaps with the family histories of many black Britons and forms part of the national school curriculum, there are no specific guidelines as to what is taught, meaning this can vary widely from one school to another. The result is that there is no national consensus on what happened and no unified understanding of Britain’s role.
Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye, Artistic Director of The World Reimagined and Global Research Director at Adjaye Associates
“We were wondering what we could do to make this more public and debated,” says Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye, artistic director of The World Reimagined and global research director at Adjaye Associates. “Dennis and Michelle felt this would allow for a more open understanding and hopefully take us to racial justice in a really concrete way and really convey what it means to be British from many perspectives.”
Comprised of arts, education, community action and outreach, The World Reimagined brings facts, accounts, ideas and sentiments surrounding enslavement and human trafficking from Africa to the Caribbean by British slave traders. Ambassadors from across the spectrum speak about the transatlantic slave trade, the diaspora it created and where we are going now. Among them are social entrepreneur Lee Lawrence, television host and producer Floella Benjamin, news anchor Gillian Joseph and actor Joseph Marcell.
Inspired by nine themes — including Mother Africa, The Reality of Being Enslaved, Stolen Legacy: Rebirth of a Nation, Still We Rise, and Reimagine the Future — the public art component is said to be one of its most intriguing aspects . Across the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London and Swansea, more than 100 globes by various artists will be installed in a nationwide sculpture trail linked to stories and facts about the slave trade and its impact.
The World Reimagined founder, Yinka Shonibare, conceived the idea of a reinvented world visualized as a globe
Yinka Shonibare conceived the idea of a reinvented world visualized as a globe. He believes art is the perfect way to convey this complex and emotional subject. “With art, you can explore a multitude of dimensions – it encompasses culture, history, debates,” says Shonibare. “And I think it’s a great platform to get the public involved too, because people tend to pay more attention than if you just said something. So it seems to me the perfect vehicle to express an important issue like this.’
The 100 creators participating in the Inspire Community Program were selected via an open call for proposals in December 2021. Five Caribbean artists were also selected through the curatorial agency Sour Grass. Based on the globe motif created by Shonibare, each artist designed their globe according to their practice. Following the three-month exhibition, the globes will be auctioned at Bonhams on October 31, with all proceeds going to The World Reimagined, paying the artists who brought the journey to life.
“Some people took it quite literally, like Yinka, who really took it as a globe and painted the map and worked in it,” explains Shaw Scott Adjaye. “Others who have a more abstract practice have simply taken it as a canvas. It was really exciting; We’ve tried to bring in as much diversity as possible, so we have graphic designers, painters, sculptors, theatrical designers, illustrators and collage artists.’
Visitors to the trails can scan a QR code to expand on the themes covered in the art on display, while those who can’t make it in person can participate remotely. Facts, photos, and stories about the history of the Black communities in these cities will be available online to support the artworks and provide access to accurate stories for anyone who wants to know more.
“The journey of discovery goes through the whole program, the whole organization. If you set off and look at a globe, you can take your smartphone, scan a code and see a video of the artist explaining what he is doing, or some texts by the artist. Then you can also learn more about the Middle Passage triangle between Europe, Africa and America and its relationship to the Windrush generation,” explains Shaw Scott Adjaye.
Shonibare has created a map of the paths of people and ideas. “Obviously there are many perspectives on the world, and historically the globe has always been a political tool, from the British Empire to various colonies,” he explains. “I think it’s the perfect vehicle to take the trade routes and turn them into the cultural and intellectual ideas that come out of Africa, the African musicians, scientists and philosophers, and actually celebrate African knowledge that’s boldly combined with the rest of the world is shared . We celebrate the African diaspora, so historical events don’t always come out of Africa and tell a fairer story of knowledge.”
Globe by London-based poet and artist Julianknxx
Bahamian artist Tamika Galanis used her archival practice to create her globe, examining the register of enslaved people created as slave traders prepared to demand redress in the event of emancipation. She combines photographs of books from the National Archives with images of gilded rice in the shape of a transport ship.
“I sat crying in the archives because I wasn’t prepared for how tangible this abstract idea would be for so many people,” reveals Galanis. “We’re talking about the transatlantic slave trade, and for most of the public and people who don’t work with these materials, it’s very abstract. But in these documents you can see their names, their ages, their origins. [They range from] People in their 60s and 70s to babies as young as six days old.’
Artist and poet Julianknxx created After the ocean, in which he removes the water that divides us to explore ideas of nationality and connectivity. “If we look at the ocean as both a starting point and a meeting place, what does it mean if we carry the ocean with us?” he asks. “If everyone in the Black Diaspora is simultaneously unique and yet connected to a variety of countries, identities and cultures, can one find a new freedom to see oneself as part of a global community of Black experiences and expressions?”
Globe by fashion designer Foday Dumbuya
Fashion designer Foday Dumbuya tells countless stories through his collections and has followed this practice in the realization of his globe. “When I do a show or a collection, it’s about elevating black excellence, it’s about bringing different stories that you don’t find in any curriculum or book,” he says. “If I find a story that’s new to me, then I talk to my colleagues and they don’t seem to have heard the story, that can be an incentive for me to publish it and not just a collection, but also to create a film or video.’
The lack of education surrounding the transatlantic slave trade has affected not only the black diaspora in Britain but all Britons; it’s a British problem. Addressing the lack of education and accurate stories, The World Reimagined begins to tell that story through art, history and technology in a way that will set a new precedent for generations to come.
“By addressing this issue and supporting people of African descent, I hope that many other things will come out of the different opportunities that people are given as a result,” says Shonibare. “It concerns everyone and everyone should pay attention to it. I hope it will raise awareness about issues like discrimination, educational opportunities, corporate opportunities, business opportunities – you name it! – in the many areas where people have actually been excluded. I hope this will do something to change people’s views and perceptions.” §