press release

The October Gallery has commissioned three leading visual artists from West Africa to create works to mark the bicentenary of the UK’s parliamentary abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Selected for their uncompromising and visual engagement with the histories that connect Africa, Europe and the Americas, the artists each map personal and universal relationships between past and future, yet in three very different ways.

El Anatsui’s work often makes use of the layers of histories that underlie the material world. His acclaimed ‘cloth’ series consists of thousands of flattened Nigerian liquor-bottle tops, sewn into a vast ‘textile’ with copper-wire. “Just think about the many ways a hand must open metal caps to pour out schnapps for prayers or libations,” says El Anatsui. In his choice of material, Anatsui draws reference to the history of both liquor and cloth as items that were traded for slaves by Europeans along the West African coast. Anatsui plays with these histories, interlacing visual and conceptual ironies like strands on a loom; the ‘cloths’ are at once both supple and razor sharp; sumptuously rich and yet coldly metallic.

Romuald Hazoumé has worked with many forms of media throughout his career, from discarded petrol canisters to oil paint and canvas. For this project, Hazoumé has produced a series of large-scale panoramic photographs. One shows a site in Benin from which slave ships once departed. Depicting the site as it is today, this panoramic photo evokes an eerily haunting landscape. In dialogue with this landscape, panoramic images from a goat-sellers’ market provoke profound reflection on the financial evaluation of lives, and the dangers of ignoring the recurring patterns of history.

Owusu-Ankomah’s canvases draw on geographically diverse sources such as adinkra signs from Ghana, graffiti from New York and capoeira from Brazil. In a trilogy of paintings created specially for this project, the artist declares his vision; a manifesto of love and understanding to fill the space between past and future. His work, Free expounds a need for consciousness in the present by depicting a transcendent figure with open arms and radiating heart, calling for a freedom not only of body, but also of spirit. He described undertaking this project as a kind of ‘holy mission’, and one with a profound message of hope.

The exhibition ‘From Courage to Freedom’ is part of the Gallery’s major new project entitled “Bitter Aftertaste: Sugar, the Slave Trade and the Arts of the Atlantic World”, which includes a range of schools’ workshops, an intergenerational outreach project, and a web-resource exploring the material culture and legacies of the Atlantic trade in art and society today.

El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoume, Owusu-Ankomah