Uncomfortable Truths

Uncomfortable Truths: The Shadow of Slave Trading on Contemporary Art and Design
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
20 February – 17 June, 2007

Curated by Zoë Whitley, this exhibition seeks to reveal the role slavery has played within the art and design objects held in the V&A’s permanent collection. In her introductory essay, Whitley notes that slavery is a historical fact that too often plays an unacknowledged role in the present. The decision to embed this exhibition within the permanent collection encourages viewers to look anew at objects that may feel familiar. Often, this exhibition teaches, it is only a portion of their histories that are properly acknowledged.

Equipped with several ‘maps’ provided by the museum, viewers set off to find the role slavery has played in the design, production and use of objects held within the V&A’s hallowed walls. The task, it turns out, is not an easy one for the simple reason that many of the objects are difficult to locate. Further signage would have rectified this problem. The need to locate this exhibition amongst existing objects on display is an important curatorial decision and brings to the fore the fact that slavery is not as an isolated event in history that we can conveniently sweep into the past. In fact, the embedded nature of this exhibition calls into question the untold stories that accompany material culture both inside the V&A as well as beyond, from the bargain t-shirt produced by child labour to the dirty diamonds mined in conflict zones.

One of the primary purposes of this exhibition is to illustrate the contribution slavery has, and continues, to make to art and design. Thus Lubaina Himid’s “Naming the Money” series quite literally depicts our debt to slavery with flat, caricature-like figures that crop up amongst the permanent collection. Each contains a balance sheet on the back recording the unpaid work of slaves. The recurring nature of the work provides an insistent distraction to the ornate wealth the figures stand amongst and reminds us of the role slavery has played in the accumulation of this wealth. But elsewhere, the contemporary work missed opportunities to make clear connections to the V&A’s foundation as a museum of applied art. For example, El Anatsui’s “Akua’s Surviving Children” of burnt driftwood provides viewers with fewer connections to the permanent collection than the artist’s more well known ‘textiles’ made from recycled bottle caps would have offered. Christine Meisner’s haunting drawings of shackle-like objects may have benefited from display within the metal collection. Commissioned for the garden, Romuald Hazoume’s snaking sculpture of recycled petrol cans is marred by an unsightly temporary barrier erected around work. I wondered if this was the result of our own rather paranoid Health and Safety concerns? If so it makes the work’s theme of the precarious transport of petrol on the back of motorcycles and scooters today even more poignant.

Overall, this exhibition was let down by the simple problem that the work on display was difficult to locate or poorly sited. Only a few of Himid’s eleven works are displayed in a way that allows the back of the figure – and its record of debt – to be seen. But the decision to display contemporary work alongside the permanent collection and retell the history of some of the objects on permanent display is a vital one. Britain’s relationship to the legacy of the slave trade is not something that history can draw a line under and move on from, but is instead an ongoing fact.

Modern Carpets & Textiles (2007: online)