Picton reinterpretation aims to create ‘healthy ways of addressing trauma’ - Museums Association

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Picton reinterpretation aims to create ‘healthy ways of addressing trauma’

New artworks go on display in Cardiff alongside portrait of 18th-century general
Decolonising Museums
Trinidadian artist Gesiye's new installation at National Museum Cardiff, The Wound is a Portal
Trinidadian artist Gesiye's new installation at National Museum Cardiff, The Wound is a Portal Luigi Creese

Two new art commissions have been unveiled at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd – National Museum Cardiff as part of a youth-led exhibition that aims to reinterpret the legacy of 18th-century general Thomas Picton.

The Reframing Picton exhibition, which opened this week, is the culmination of a community project to reinterpret the portrait of the so-called “tyrant of Trinidad”.

The painting, which used to be in the museum’s Faces of Wales gallery, has gone on show for the first time since it was removed in November 2021. It is now displayed at floor level in a wooden travel frame rather than being hung on the wall.

Previously celebrated as a public hero after his death in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Picton was notorious for the brutality of his governorship of the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where he sanctioned the torture of free and enslaved Black people.

He was tried in England for the illegal torture of a 14-year-old girl, Luisa Calderón, but later had his conviction overturned.

The reinterpretation aims to “give a voice to those most affected by Picton’s actions, and to those who live with the legacy today”, according to Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales.

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The new artworks by Trinidadian artist Gesiye and the Trinidadian and African artist collective Laku Neg (Black Yard) “explore narratives of ancestry, healing, transformation and empowerment”, according to the museum. They aim to challenge colonial narratives that have traditionally existed in the museum “by centring Black consciousness, experiences, and voices”.

Gesiye's commission, The Wound is a Portal, uses the process of tattooing to explore generational trauma in relation to the land. Her installation includes a series of portraits and a short film.

Laku Neg's commission, Spirited, is an immersive installation comprising a metal sculpture, bamboo frames, twisted paper, found objects and audiovisual elements. It aims to offer "reimaginings and recreations of a period in which Trinidadian and Welsh history overlap".

The project team, made up of members of the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel’s Youth Leadership Network, worked with museum curators to provide additional information and context about Picton’s legacy that was not part of the previous interpretation of the portrait.

The group looked at objects across Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections to reinterpret the narrative around Picton. The exhibition features a newly acquired transcript of the trial of Picton in London in 1806, anti-slavery medals produced to support the late 18th century anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, and a medal from the 1819 Eisteddfod, which was won by Walter Davies in 1819 for his ode to Picton.

The team also consulted with independent arts and education charity Culture& on different ways to approach the redisplay.

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The project team said: “For generations, even up to recent years, saying ‘Black lives matter’ has been controversial. In the time we worked on this project we made a point to expose – not erase – history, and it was essential that we directly involved people connected to Trinidad, where Picton entrenched his reputation for barbarism during his tenure as governor.

“One of our goals for this exhibition was to create a site of conscience rather than indoctrination. To create a dialogue between museums, the governments that fund them and the communities they serve. To create healthy ways of addressing trauma. We hope that this exhibition will encourage visitors of all backgrounds to listen and learn from the past, and to put these learnings into practice today.”

Welsh minister for social justice, Jane Hutt, said the exhibition aligned with the government's mission to create an anti-racist Wales by 2030. She said “Projects like this demonstrate how important it is to understand our past, this isn’t about re-writing history, it’s about highlighting the context and taking a more holistic view of our past.”

Fadhili Maghiya, director of the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel, said: “For the longest time Picton has been celebrated in Wales. Now, for the first-time communities that were historically exploited and abused by the likes of Picton have a reason to celebrate.

“Our stories, told through beautiful and affirmative pieces of art, celebrating our resilience and remembering our heritage and history, our side of the story.

“There might be misconceptions that Amgueddfa Cymru and the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel’s Youth Network seek to rewrite history with this project. However, that is far from the truth. Reframing Picton aims to rewrite our future by challenging the way we engage with history. The project enables us to widen the spotlight that has for many years hidden the darkness of Picton in all its full and truthful context.”

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