Ambitious new art project examines Britain’s role in Transatlantic Slave Trade

Combining the work of art icons and an open call to emerging talent, new UK art education project The World Reimagined seeks to transform contemporary understanding the Transatlantic Slave Trade

A render of Yinka Shonibare's globe design for The World Reimagined
A render of Yinka Shonibare's globe design for The World Reimagined
(Image credit: press)

An open and unvarnished discussion about the Transatlantic Slave Trade is rare to come by. But that’s all set to change thanks to The World Reimagined, a groundbreaking national art and educational project, launched in the United Kingdom. 

The initiative intends to inspire and instil pride in what it means to be Black and British, and is dedicated to uniting Britain in a re-examination of its history, while fostering a dialogue about how reimagining its societal status quo can help create a world that cherishes dignity, unity and diversity. 

In development since 2019, The World Reimagined is a national non-profit founded by actor and writer Michelle Gayle, and Dennis Marcus, executive director of Robert F Kennedy Human Rights UK. Led by a multifaceted group of Black leaders, ranging from entrepreneurs Ruth Ibegbuna and Lee Lawrence to creative forces Gillian Joseph, Dean Ricketts and Fiona Compton, the initiative’s efforts will culminate in a multi-pronged art exhibition that will run from August to October 2022.

The exhibition will take the form of a trail of fibreglass globe sculptures across the UK, each created using a foundational structure designed by Yinka Shonibare. Each sculpture will showcase the creative expression of a different artist, including Shonibare. UK host cities include Birmingham, Leeds, London, Swansea and Bristol, with further locations announced soon.  

Portrait of artist Yinka Shonibare, The World Reimagined

Artist Yinka Shonibare, The World Reimagined’s founding artist, who has conceived both the base structure for the series of globes, and the first sculpture to feature in the trails, also titled The World Reimagined

(Image credit: press)

The World Reimagined: an open call for emerging artists

In addition to its invited practitioners, The World Reimagined is holding an open call until the end of 2021 for UK-based artists working in photography, painting, mosaic, sculpture, collage and drawing to submit their globe designs. A jury including artist Chris Ofili, gallery director Zoé Whitley, and Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye, global head of research at Adjaye Associates and artistic director for The World Reimagined, will be vetting the submissions.

‘At a general public level in the UK, there is relatively low awareness of the history and impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as very few people have had the opportunity to learn about it,’ says Shaw-Scott Adjaye. ‘One of the challenges is that when it is brought to light, it is often treated as a self-contained historical event – a time capsule from centuries ago. It wasn’t; it shaped so much of the world around us, from the physical in the form of buildings to how people see one another, which is still present, every day. The tentacles of this history still wrap themselves around us, clearly seen in disparities in health, education and wealth.’

She continues, ‘If we're going to make racial justice a reality, it's going to take all of us. The open call embraces that idea – to uplift, celebrate and centre the experience and perspectives of Black artists – who too often have not had the opportunity or the spotlight. But also to invite artists of every background to explore how they can engage with and contribute to the mission of The World Reimagined. This is truly public art in the deepest sense: for the public, by the public, in the spaces that people spend their lives.’

Portrait of Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye, global head of research at Adjaye Associates and artistic director for The World Reimagined 

Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye, global head of research at Adjaye Associates and artistic director for The World Reimagined 

(Image credit: press)

Making racial justice a reality

Using art to tackle such deeply rooted and painful history was a conscious decision for the organisers. ‘The power of art lies in its ability to cut across artificial borders and help us both express our humanity and transform our understanding,’ says Scott-Shaw Adjaye. ‘Public art, and sculpture, in particular, offers an invitation to every person in a community to engage, to question, to feel and, ultimately, to connect with one another. That invitation is why groundbreaking art and social change have always been deeply intertwined: the challenge, the opportunity and the inspiration to consider who we are and who we can be – both individually and collectively.’

When creating their submissions, artists are invited to respond to the Journey of Discovery, a framework of nine themes designed to enhance collective understanding of this history. These start with exploring the cultural richness of Africa before the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its subsequent impact on Africa, to the reality of being enslaved, how Britain was transformed as a result of the slave trade and it strengthened dynastic influence and power. The arc continues by delving into the complexities around abolition, the relationship people have with the ‘mother country’, and how the slave trade continues to have a negative impact on life today. The narrative ends with a sharing of untold legacies and stories: how descendants of those enslaved have triumphed and how this cultural vibrancy – in food, music and art – can create a more equitable future for all. 

‘A key part of The World Reimagined’s mission is to grow the community of people committed and taking action to make racial justice a reality,’ Shaw-Scott Adjaye explains. ‘The Journey of Discovery narrative framework had to do three key things: the first was to create space for many more experiences of history, rather than the singular perspective that dominates current understanding in the UK. The second was to make a history that spans continents and centuries digestible so that people new to it feel confident going on this journey. And finally, it had to be a journey along history that resolutely looks to the future. Ultimately, though our subject is the past, the focus of The World Reimagined is the future we can create together.’

Entries for The World Reimagined's Artist Open Call close on 31 December 2021.

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.