I am a man and a brother: allyship by design

September 9, 2021

The Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion is the focus of an exciting live-research project at the V&A Wedgwood Collection. In re-examining this iconic object, it’s essential that we discuss its complex history with our local communities, finding out what the object means to them and how they feel the story should be told.

‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’, anti-slavery medallion, by the Josiah Wedgwood Factory, 1787. Museum no. WE.7825-2014 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As part of a series of public engagement activities, we recently embarked on a week-long workshop with a group of art and design students at the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College. Students were invited to discover and discuss the significance of the medallion through its historic context, contemporary relevance and the process of its making. The intended output: a design for a medallion for the 21st century.

Object handling at the V&A Wedgwood Collection. Photo: Jenny Harper

Designing the workshops

We’ve been incredibly lucky to work with both Grace Barrett, founder of anti-racism teacher training programme I AM ALLY, and Georgia Haseldine, Public Engagement Fellow at the V&A Research Institute, on this project.

Being ‘not racist’ is different to being anti-racist. That goes for systems as well as individuals.

Grace Barrett

Grace’s work focuses on building anti-racist spaces, particularly within the education system where she supports teachers and students to become active allies. During the discussions with local students, Grace was able to draw on her own experiences of growing up in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1990s.

Georgia’s experience as both an artist and protest historian drew her to this object and she was able to reflect on how students might best engage through the process of design and making.

We also met with a representative from SABLE, Staffordshire Association for Black Lives Equality, and craftspeople from the Wedgwood factory taught students the art of medallion making.

The strands of history, art and allyship were woven together throughout the week to equip the students with the tools they needed to interrogate the medallion, its purpose and iconography. The result was a thoughtful and creative design process, considering what a protest medallion should look like today.

Using clay for the first time. Photo: Jenny Harper

The power of an image

After several creative outbursts – including designing a medallion in 60 seconds using the opposite hand and tracing the design of the person to the left – a fantastic series of thoughtful designs emerged. It was important to the group to present images of empowerment and hope in contrast to the 1787 design.

I think that at the time, the anti-slavery medallion informed white people and almost had a shock value that wanted to make them advocate for change. However, I feel that in the modern day this imagery can be upsetting and our modern designs want to empower people

Student, Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

Student, Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

Themes of broken chains inspired by Wedgwood’s medallion sat beside fists and hands held to symbolise unity. Some focused on flowers and the idea of growing together, while for others the bold lines and empowering drawings in artist Emory Douglas’ designs for the Black Panther movement were a clear influence. 

Close ups of some medallions. Photo: Jenny Harper

What next?

As the display goes up in September, we’re delighted to have curatorial support from some members of the class who will have final sign off on the arrangement of the historic and contemporary objects.

The final design shows the recognisable fist motif emerging out of the iconic Stoke-on-Trent bottle kilns and plays with the wording from the original 1787 medallion, making it a statement rather than a question. This graphic will feature heavily throughout the display and galleries to unify the programme.

I Am a Man and a Brother, designed by Amy Sproston, City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

From October we will be inviting the students to join a youth panel whose aim will be to review visitor responses to the display and trail, along with new research and outputs from an upcoming medallion-inspired terminology event, to feed into a permanent redisplay of this fantastic but complex Wedgwood object.

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