Two new artist commissions at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff aim to reframe the legacy of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, the 18th-century military leader who was known as the “tyrant of Trinidad” during his governorship of the Caribbean island.
The museum hopes that the new commissions will amplify the voices of those originally neglected in the telling of Picton’s story and those whose lives are most affected by his legacy today. When complete, the new commissions will become part Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales' (AC-NMW) collection.
The commissions have been awarded to artist Gesiye and art collective Laku Neg as part of the Reframing Picton project, a youth-led initiative involving AC-NMW and community partner, the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel.
Reframing Picton focuses on re-examining the museum's portrait of Picton by Martin Archer Shee. Long hailed as a national hero, Picton was the highest-ranking British officer to be killed at the Battle of Waterloo. He was also notorious for cruelty during his reign as governor of Trinidad, where he sanctioned torture against the island's inhabitants, particularly its enslaved population. The museum's previous display of the painting made little reference to Picton's reputation for brutality.
The new commissions follow a callout by the institution in January 2021 for artists to explore alternatives to the colonial narrative represented by the portrait and centre Black experiences.
The proposed new artworks by Gesiye and Laku Neg will “explore narratives of ancestry, healing, transformation and empowerment”. They aim to challenge the colonial narratives that have traditionally existed in National Museum Cardiff’s galleries by centring Black consciousness, experiences and voices.
Gesiye is a multi-disciplinary artist from Trinidad and Tobago. Her commissioned work will invite Black Trinidadians to participate in a healing offering that includes a series of tattoos and conversations around their connection to the land.
She said: “Our connection to the spaces that we are born into gives us a sense of belonging and responsibility to that land. When that connection is impacted by trauma, such as the trauma of slavery and colonialism, we develop patterns of behaviour in relationship to the land that are then passed down through generations.
“I envision this piece as a ritual, a healing opportunity for Black Trinidadians to reconnect to self, to this island and to each other. This work is not an attempt to rewrite history, it is a disruption of the narrative that is so often held up as a singular truth.”
Laku Neg, which means Black Yard in Haitian Kwéyòl, is a collective of four artists of Trinidadian heritage living and working in the UK. The group promotes expressions of African diaspora knowledge through the arts. Their commission will explore a re-presentation of Louisa and Present, two young girls who became victims of Picton’s brutal regime.
Laku Neg said: “We relish the enormous responsibility of this project, as we work with National Museum Wales to offer the public a 360 degree view of Welsh history. This work for us is also ancestral work. We acknowledge what it means to be of the islands in the New World and we honour those who have gone before us - especially our foremothers.
“Here, we aim to create an immersive installation, illuminating a story that did not make it across the Atlantic intact. In re-presenting the Caribbean and its connection with colonial powers, we hope to prompt searching conversations about power, heroism and truth.”
The project group includes Amgueddfa Cymru Producers, a network of young people across Wales who collaborate to develop activities and events at the museum, as well as members of the SSAP’s Youth Leadership Network, a network of young people from the African diaspora who bring lived experience, capacity and expertise from the community.
Kath Davies, director of collections and research at AC-NMW, said: “I’m really looking forward to see the commissioned artworks on display at National Museum Cardiff, and we hope that it generates conversation about how we share the different perspectives and histories of Wales in a modern-day museum.”
Fadhili Maghiya, director of the SSAP, said: “It’s no secret that history has rarely been written by people of colour. We are now in a time when we are taking ownership of our narrative and stepping from the footnotes of history into the centre. Our partnership with the museum is exciting and rewarding for the community, and everyone involved. We are learning from each other and not afraid to challenge.”
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