Some of the objects in the V&A’s collection are particularly hard to look at. White European craftspeople made degrading ceramic ornaments of Black people. These racist objects can make you want to turn away. Nowadays they fill us with shame. But with the help of artists and experts, we can examine them closely to learn more about the context in which they were made and why they still hold important lessons today.
In this post I’ll share with you the work of some of the inspiring individuals who have guided the V&A Research Institute and V&A Wedgwood Collection’s ongoing investigations into these challenging objects over the past few months. Their work is united by their use of collage, the power of re-making and the need to re-contextualise objects based on rigorously researched histories of the silenced.
This post contains images of objects you might find traumatic or upsetting.
Theaster Gates’s Black Archive
How do you train a person to look at the ugliness of America? To accept the embarrassing truth that people made mockery of other people.Theaster Gates
For the past year and a half, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has been Emeritus Fellow in the V&A Research Institute. In preparation for his exhibition A Clay Sermon at the Whitechapel Gallery, we sifted through the V&A’s collection to uncover clay artefacts which told forgotten narratives of enslaved labour and colonial exploitation. One of the V&A objects which Gates selected for his exhibition was a tobacco jar in the shape of a Black shoeshine boy. In nineteenth-century Britain, exoticised representations of Black Africans were used to advertise tobacco, a colonial product grown by enslaved labourers. The jar depicts the boy as smiling to negate any guilt the viewer might feel about the provenance of their tobacco.
Gates worked with Ana J. and Edward J. Williams to give a permanent home to their collection of racist ephemera. Comprised of nearly 4000 objects of “negrobilia”, Ana J. and Edward J. Williams began collecting these objects over 30 years ago to remove their offensive imagery from public circulation. Housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Rebuild Foundation is now the refuge of this important collection.
In previous exhibitions, such as Black Archive at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2016, he enlarged these artefacts so that they couldn’t be brushed off as harmless or deemed ‘cute’. Gates’s work is an important call to action for institutions such as the V&A to tackle head on problematic objects in their collection rather than hiding or minimising them.
Last month, we gathered artists and scholars at a workshop for V&A staff, students and volunteers to interrogate racist ceramic objects in our collection and to give us new ideas about how to think, write and display them. We were joined by Dr Adrienne Childs, Jacqueline Bishop, Rosa-Johan Uddoh and Matt Smith.
My work on ornamental blackness seeks to uncover and analyse how the tensions inherent in the system of codes in which the Black body – enslaved, reviled, feared, subjugated, and assaulted in one context – are also the symbol of aristocratic opulence in another.Adrienne Childs
Dr Adrienne Childs is an influential scholar who has pioneered the study of the ‘blackamoor’ figure in the decorative arts. These sculptures ‘exemplify how material culture celebrated Black slavery in a manner that recast human degradation and exploitation into exotic vignettes’ (Adrienne L. Childs, ‘Sugar Boxes and Blackamoors: Ornamental Blackness in Early Meissen Porcelain’ in The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain eds. Alden Cavanaugh and Michael E. Yonan (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 167–8). She shared with us her research into these understudied objects, taking as one example a figurine of a Black woman holding a sweetmeat bowl. Johann Friedrich Eberlein, the modeller of this object, disguised the labour of enslaved Africans working in the deadly enterprise of sugar production by creating a lavish fantasy of Blackness, from which elite white Europeans could eat sugary desserts. Childs’s research demonstrates how important it is that these fashionable historic ceramics are displayed critically in our museums today.
History at the Dinner Table
One of the gifts of being a visual artist, indeed an artist of any stripe, is that you can read into, out of, about and around silencesJacqueline Bishop
Artist and writer Jacqueline Bishop reflected on her recent work History at the Dinner Table that was displayed to great acclaim at this year’s British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent. Bishop’s work reflects on her grandmother’s mahogany cabinet in which she kept her prized china in Nonsuch, Jamaica. She has remodelled these bone china plates and their display to forefront the gendered history and legacy of slavery in Jamaica through the reproduction of historical images of women enslaved labourers which are embellished with the luscious fauna and flora of the island. Bishop explained that as she too is ‘seduced by the delicacy of bone china ware, I have made my dishes despite their violent history equally as beautiful as those that came out of Spode and Sèvres’.
Performance artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s multi-media solo-exhibition ‘Practice Makes Perfect’, currently at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, responds to current debates about Black history on the National Curriculum through the figure of Saint Balthazar, one of the three biblical Maji who brought gifts to Jesus. Uddoh performed for us an animated extract from her story, Nativity, which tells how Balthazar became Black in European art history and imagines the lives and experiences of the Black people who modelled for these famous paintings.
‘To become Balthazar, you must hang out in your local tavern. Eventually you will be approached by an excitable painter – Frans Hals, Velásquez, Rubens, or an intern from the workshop. They sidle up, exclaiming “Hail, Blackamoor” or “What, Othello! Sit beside me” or “Look mama, a negro” or “You have just the perfect complexion” etc. And it is right there in that act of turning from your brown ale to meet their greeting that you become that subject. Not for the first time you become that Black friend, you become Balthazar’ – Rosa-Johan Uddoh
The collection tells a skewed, sanitised version of history and a very a particular view of colonial historyMatt Smith
Curator and ceramicist Matt Smith staged a recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum entitled ‘Flux: Parian Unpacked’. Smith highlighted British imperial atrocities and homophobic discriminatory practices by redisplaying a collection of Parian portrait busts alongside new works he made in response. You can read the exhibition catalogue here. The V&A contains many similar objects, such as this bust of Charles George Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan.
V&A Wedgwood Collection
These ideas will feed into the ongoing live-research project we are conducting with anti-racism activists and young people from Stoke-on-Trent at the V&A Wedgwood Collection. Together we have been re-interpreting Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion. You can see our work so far in a small exhibition co-curated with students from Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and object trail around the permanent collection at the V&A Wedgwood Collection.
We are grateful to Theaster Gates, Adrienne Childs, Matt Smith, Rosa-Johan Uddoh and Jacqueline Bishop for opening our eyes by sharing their research and practice.