Culture, Globe, Pages, United Kingdom

Creating memorials, building identities

The displays are a form of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’, as they are forays by a small minority into a world controlled by the ideologies of the perpetrators, in the belief that even a small seed of change, is a sign of hope. It is an attempt by the victims, to get their voice heard.

 

Nigel Pocock

 

“Creating memorials, building identities: The politics of memory in the Black Atlantic”…

This is a truly thought-provoking book (writing by Alan Rice) which could really – yes, really! – change the way you both do, and present your art and memorials, and indeed any kind of educational ‘installation’.

 Before even completing the book, I found myself outlining and sketching out new ‘dialogic’ art installations for a forthcoming exhibition…

Alan Rice’s central ideas rotate around the notions of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ and ‘dialogic displays’.

These are tremendously useful concepts, which challenge traditional museum and other kinds of memorialisation and educational presentations. Their importance cannot be overstated. But what do they mean, and how can they be applied? Conventional displays tend to have an exhibit, and a plaque with a brief slice of historical data and context, and no more.

A dialogic presentation, as the word suggests, tries to set up a critical dialogue.

The intention is to present the conflicting forces that shaped the themes in the presentation or ‘installation’. Some examples may help.

I am currently designing displays for an exhibition of Slavery and Moravian history in the context of Surinam and Antigua and the United Kingdom.

The designs are intended to be ‘dialogic’ in setting up a dialogue between the spectator and their received ideas and the experiences of the slaves and the Moravians.

This in itself will be uncomfortable for some, for the Moravians started as opposed to slavery, before gradually adopting it. The displays are also a form of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’, as they are forays by a small minority into a world controlled by the ideologies of the perpetrators, in the belief that even a small seed of change, is a sign of hope.

It is an attempt by the victims, to get their voice heard, and, in doing so, to encourage the perpetrators to gain an understanding of themselves.

In my case, one display will focus on Harriet Maynard (1850-1906), born a slave in Surinam, brought to England, educated at a Moravian School, became an artist, and very possibly exhibited at the famous Newlyn Gallery in Cornwall, UK.

This would make her one of the very first female Black artists in the UK of note, and moreover, born a slave!

We recently, and quite amazingly, discovered the very first painting attributable to Harriet, in an auction room in the US.

Our intention, in this installation, is to superimpose a copy of this painting onto a series of famous prints of slaves and the punishments they suffered in Suriman (by John Gabriel Stedman).

A dialogue is thus set up between the violent racist slave images of Surinam culture under Dutch (and English) slavery, and Harriet’s accomplishments as a pioneering Black female artist.

Another ‘dialogue’ I am designing revolves around the themes of pacifism and war. The Moravians started as pacifists (going back as far as John Wyclif, 1330-84) but abandoned this commitment around the 1860s. The nearby Moravian burial ground has only one person before 1927 who was in any way in the military.

My intention is to create an installation with conflicting meanings, such as Jesus’ powerful statements that Christians should “love their enemies”, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and to ‘do good to those who curse them’, together with a picture of the aircraft used, and the obituary regarding the pilot’s death.

This will be again be unpopular for some, but should stimulate critical and thoughtful dialogue.

Alan’s book is a huge encouragement and excellent catalyst for creative thinking about new possibilities for art in memorials, museums, schools and colleges, as well as other contexts.

There is of course, far more to his 200+ pages than has been reviewed here. My comments are merely a kind of testimony to the value of this book, and given in the expressed hope that you, too, will find it equally helpful to your work and creativity.

“Creating memorials, building identities: The politics of memory in the Black Atlantic” by, Alan Rice, is published by Liverpool University Press. 2010.

(Photos from “Surinam to East Tytherton – The Story of Harriet Maynard 1850-1906″ by Nigel Pocock)

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