Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"La Bouche du Roi" at the British Museum

This marks 200 years since the slave trade was abolished. In Britain, there’s lots of talk of William Wilberforce and other liberal abolitionists who campaigned to end it. This official version of history will have us all believe that progress is made through polite political lobbying of parliament, when in fact, freedom(s) are most often won through struggle. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the slave trade: from countless uprisings that wreaked havoc on the resolve of slaveowners to the victorious slave-led revolution in Haiti in 1791 that fought off the armies of the world’s superpowers (unfortunately, Haitians are still paying the price today), it was those who were enslaved who made the slave economy untenable.

Knowing the controversy over the question of abolition, it was with a bit of trepidation that I went down to the British Museum to check out their latest exhibit marking the bi-centenary. The British Museum hardly strikes me as a space for careful reflection on empire and racism. But there it was, Romuald Hazoumé poignant exhibit, entitled “La Bouche du Roi.”

This exhibit tells the story of the slave trade using innovative artwork, and links this history to present-day forms of bondage and resistance in an area of Benin that served as a jumping off point for the transfer of slaves to England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The main part of the exhibit, and the most striking to me, was based on a 18th century woodcut of the slave ship Brookes, based in Liverpool. This woodcut was made for the abolitionist Thomas Clarke and is well-known in Britain. Hazoumé re-creates this woodcut using petrol canister masks to represent the bodies lined up in the original woodcut, 304 in all. There are small plastic cans representing children, cracked ones representing dead bodies, and at the head of the ship there are the goods, such as gin bottles and guns, representing the items used in trading for Africans. Why plastic petrol cans you might ask?

Hazoumé chose these because they are currently symbols of oppression in Benin, as young men heat these canisters to blow them up and transport petrol between Benin and Nigeria, often dying in the process due to the dangerous use of the over-extended plastic cans. As the exhibit tells us, “Like slaves, the plastic cans are worked to breaking point, and then discarded.”

However, Hazoumé doesn’t want to leave this image of victimhood germinate, and reminds us that transporting the petrol is also an act of resistance to the oppression that stalks this part of Benin. It is one of the few ways for these men to claw back some of Africa’s resources for their own benefit, having seen so much of the area’s wealth pilfered over the centuries, leaving the majority of the area’s residents mired in poverty.

And this is the true strength of the exhibit. Slavery is not simply historical, something that happened in the past, but its legacy is still ongoing, as is resistance to its many forms. I was left wondering: How am I implicated? How are we all implicated in this injustice?

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