The World Reimagined revisits the history of the transatlantic slave trade through art
Culminating in a sculpture trail across the UK on 13 August, The World Reimagined initiative uses art to illuminate the history of the transatlantic slave trade, inviting us ‘to face our shared history with honesty, empathy and grace’
What do you know about the transatlantic slave trade? It is a huge piece of British history that many people don’t seem to really understand, and that has to change.
A new project, The World Reimagined, aims to set the record straight about ‘the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and its impact on all of us’. Founded by Dennis Marcus and actor-singer Michelle Gayle, the initiative uses art to communicate its message: it is installing more than 100 globes throughout the country, each bearing the commentary of artists and creatives both on the slave trade, as well as their past, present and future relationships with Britain.
The aim is to create a baseline of knowledge about the transatlantic slave trade in the UK. Although this historical event intersects with the family histories of many Black Britons, and is part of the national school curriculum, there are no specific guidelines about what is taught, meaning this can vary massively 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.
‘We asked ourselves, what can we do to make this more public and more discussed,’ says Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye, artistic director of The World Reimagined and global head of research at Adjaye Associates. ‘Dennis and Michelle felt it would enable a more open understanding, and hopefully bring us towards racial justice, in a way that was really concrete and really communicates what it means to be British from many perspectives.’
Encompassing art, education, community action and outreach, The World Reimagined is bringing facts, accounts, ideas and feelings around the enslavement and trafficking of people from Africa to the Caribbean by British slave traders. Ambassadors from across the spectrum are speaking about the transatlantic slave trade, the diaspora it created and where we are headed now. Among them are social entrepreneur Lee Lawrence, television presenter and producer Floella Benjamin, news presenter 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 set to be one of its most captivating aspects. Installed across the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London and Swansea, more than 100 globes by different artists are being installed in a nationwide sculpture trail linked to stories and facts about the slave trade and its impact.
Yinka Shonibare conceptualised the idea of a reimagined world visualised as a globe. He believes that art is the perfect way to communicate this complex and emotive subject. ‘With art, you can explore a multiplicity of dimensions – it takes in culture, history, debate,’ says Shonibare. ‘And I think it’s a great platform to actually engage the public as well, because people do tend to pay more attention than they would if you had just said something. So, it seems to me to be the perfect vehicle to express an important issue like this.’
More than 100 creatives were sourced through an open call for submissions held in December 2021. Five Caribbean artists were also selected through the curatorial agency Sour Grass. Using the globe motif created by Shonibare as a base, each artist designed their globe in accordance with their practice. Following the three-month-long exhibition, the globes will be auctioned at Bonhams later this year, with all proceeds going to The World Reimagined and paying the artists who have brought the journey to life.
‘Some people have taken it quite literally, like Yinka, who really looked at it as a globe and has painted the map and worked within that,’ explains Shaw Scott Adjaye. ‘Others, who have a more abstract practice, have just taken it as a canvas. It has been really exciting; we have tried to bring as much diversity into this as possible, so we have graphic designers, painters, sculptors, theatre designers, illustrators and collage artists.’
Visitors to the trails can scan a QR code to expand on the themes addressed in the art on view, while those who cannot make it in person can participate remotely. Facts, photos and stories relating to the histories of Black communities in these cities will be available online, providing support for the artworks and access to accurate histories for anyone curious to know more.
‘The journey of discovery goes across the whole programme, the whole organisation. If you’re going on the trail and looking at a globe, you can take your smartphone, scan a code, and see a video from the artist explaining what they’re doing, or some texts from the artist. Then you can also discover more about the Middle Passage triangle between Europe, Africa and the Americas, and its relationship to the Windrush Generation,’ explains Shaw Scott Adjaye.
Shonibare has created a map of the routes of people and of ideas. ‘Obviously, there are many perspectives in the world, and the globe has historically always been a political tool from the British Empire to various colonies,’ he explains. ‘I think that it’s the perfect vehicle to take the trade routes and turn them into the cultural and intellectual ideas coming out of Africa, the African musicians, scientists, philosophers, and actually celebrate African knowledge that is shared with the rest of the world boldly. We are celebrating the African diaspora, so it’s not always historical events coming out of Africa, and telling a more equitable story of knowledge.’
Bahamian artist Tamika Galanis used her archival practice to create her globe, looking into the register of enslaved people made when slavers were preparing to seek reparations in the event of emancipation. She combines photographs of ledgers taken from the National Archives with images of gilded rice in the shape of a transportation ship.
‘I was sitting in the archive crying because I wasn’t prepared for just how tangible this idea, that has been so abstract for so many people, was going to be,’ Galanis reveals. ‘We talk 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 see their names, their ages, their origins. [They range from] people in their 60s and 70s, to infants who were six days old.’
Artist and poet Julianknxx created After The Ocean, in which he removes the water that separates us as a means of exploring ideas of nationality and connectivity. ‘If we consider the ocean as both a point of departure and meeting, what does it mean if we carry the ocean with us?’ he asks. ‘If all in the Black diaspora are at once singular yet connected to a multiplicity of lands, identities and cultures, can new freedom be found in thinking of oneself as part of a global community of Black experience and expression?’
Fashion designer Foday Dumbuya tells untold stories through his collections and has followed this practice through when realising his globe. ‘When I do a show or a collection, it’s about elevating Black excellence, it’s about bringing other stories that you don’t find in any curriculum, or in a book,’ he says. ‘When I find a story that is new to me, then speak to my peers, and they seem to not have heard the story, it can be an incentive for me to put it out there and create not just a collection, but also a film or video.’
The lack of education around the transatlantic slave trade has affected not only the Black diaspora in Britain, but all British people; it is a British issue. In addressing the lack of education and lack of accurate histories, The World Reimagined starts to tell this story through art, history and technology, in a way that sets a new precedent for future generations.
‘Through dealing with this issue and supporting people of African origin, I’m hoping that many other things will come out of the various opportunities that people will get through this,’ says Shonibare. ‘This is everybody’s issue and everybody should pay attention to it. I’m hoping that it will create awareness around issues of discrimination, educational opportunity, enterprise opportunity, business opportunity – you name it! – in the many areas where people have actually been excluded. I’m hoping that this will contribute something towards changing people’s views and perceptions.’ §