Best in show | Commodities, 2021, by Carl Gabriel - Museums Association

Best in show | Commodities, 2021, by Carl Gabriel

Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, South Yorkshire
Art Museum X Slavery
Profile image for Eleanor Matthews
Eleanor Matthews
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As a traditional carnival artist with many decades of association with Notting Hill Carnival, Trinidadian-born Carl Gabriel’s work is often covered with brightly painted papier-mâché. But without the colourful outer layer his work is surprisingly ethereal and encourages the viewer to look at, through and beyond the intricate wirework and fine mesh material. 

Five of Gabriel’s steel wire sculptures will be shown across Brodsworth Hall and Gardens in a new exhibition. Their complex shapes and translucency reflect different aspects of Brodsworth’s relationship with the transatlantic slave trade, which is the focus of the exhibition.

One of Brodsworth’s volunteers recently described Gabriel’s work as ‘ghost sculptures’, which is a wonderful description and really gets to the heart of why we wanted to work with him. His creations allow us to enjoy and admire the beautiful craftsmanship (it takes around six weeks to complete each sculpture) while looking thoughtfully and reflectively into the past.  

This work, Commodities, follows the story of sugar. Tall, elegant sugar-cane plants reach upwards next to bullet-like sugar cones, all representing the shaping of the product and its transport from Caribbean plantations to Britain and other countries. An oversized teapot and cup and saucer complete the journey: by the end of the 19th century sugar was in almost every home in Britain.  

Before the present hall was built, the Brodsworth estate was purchased in 1791 by Peter Thellusson, a merchant and banker. Thellusson lent money to plantation owners, traded in slave-produced goods, such as sugar and rum, and part-owned several sugar refineries in London.

His great grandson, Charles Sabine, eventually inherited the estate, rebuilding the hall we know today and remodelling the gardens, filling both with mostly Italian figurative sculpture. Some of these have been lost or damaged over time leaving a number of empty plinths. These empty spaces inspired us to fill them with sculpture and use contemporary visual art to interpret the stories of Brodsworth. 

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Working with partners, including a researcher based at the University of West Indies Open Campus Grenada, has enabled us to find out more about the historical context of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as ensuring that the exhibition is a collaborative effort. The exhibition will also feature the work of award-winning poet and multi-disciplinary artist, Malika Booker.  

Sculpture was, and remains, an important part of the original vision for the Italianate design of Brodsworth. It’s exciting to think that the empty plinths will again hold sculptures, and that the new sculptures and exhibition, alongside the poetry installation, will help to share this important part of Brodsworth’s history with our visitors. 

Liberty and Lottery: Exploring the Legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, Doncaster, runs from 4 September 2021 until November 2022 

Eleanor Matthews is a curator of collections and interiors for English Heritage 

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