New commissions to challenge ‘colonial narrative’ of Thomas Picton at National Museum Cardiff
The National Museum Wales has announced two new artist commissions which will reframe the legacy of Sir Thomas Picton.
The museum hopes that the new commissions will amplify the voices of those originally neglected in the telling of Picton’s story, or those whose lives are most affected by its legacy today. When complete, the new commissions will become a part of Wales’ national collection.
It comes after Cardiff council voted to remove the Picton statue from Cardiff City Hall next door in July last year, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and a month after a similar statue was toppled in Bristol.
Sir Thomas Picton has been celebrated as a war hero because he was the highest ranking officer to die at the Battle of Waterloo, but awareness grew recently of his role in the slave trade.
National Museum Wales said they had awarded to Gesiye and Laku Neg as part of a wider project, Reframing Picton, which is a youth-led initiative involving Amgueddfa Cymru and community partner the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP).
The commissions follow a callout by Amgueddfa Cymru in January 2021 for artists to explore alternatives to the colonial narrative represented by the portrait of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton and to centre Black experiences. The portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee has been a part of Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections since its founding in 1907.
The proposed new artworks by Gesiye and Laku Neg will explore “narratives of ancestry, healing, transformation and empowerment”. They said that they will challenge the colonial narratives that have traditionally existed in National Museum Cardiff’s galleries by centring Black consciousness, experiences, and voices.
Gesiye (pronounced gay-see-yay) is a multi-disciplinary artist from Trinidad and Tobago. Her work with individuals and communities explores storytelling, connection and healing across various mediums, and is inspired by a deep love and respect for the earth. Her commissioned work invites Black Trinidadians to participate in a healing offering that includes a series of tattoos and conversations around their connection to the land.
She said: “Our connection to the spaces that we are born into gives us a sense of belonging and responsibility to that land. When that connection is impacted by trauma, such as the trauma of slavery and colonialism, we develop patterns of behaviour in relationship to the land that are then passed down through generations.
“I envision this piece as a ritual, a healing opportunity for Black Trinidadians to re-connect to self, to this island and to each other. This work is not an attempt to re-write history, it is a disruption of the narrative that is so often held up as a singular truth.”
Laku Neg (Black Yard in Haitian Kwéyòl) is represented by four members of Trinidadian heritage, living and working in the UK. The group promotes expressions of African diaspora knowledge through the arts. Their commission will explore a re-presentation of Louisa and Present, two young girls who became victims of Picton’s brutal regime in Trinidad.
They said: “We relish the enormous responsibility of this project, as we work with National Museum Wales to offer the public a 360 degree view of Welsh history. This work for us is also ancestral work. We acknowledge what it means to be of the islands in the New World and we honour those who have gone before us – especially our foremothers.
“Here, we aim to create an immersive installation, illuminating a story that did not make it across the Atlantic intact. In re-presenting the Caribbean and its connexion with colonial powers, we hope to prompt searching conversations about power, heroism and truth.”
The project group includes Amgueddfa Cymru Producers – a network of young people across Wales who collaborate to develop activities, events and more at the Museum – and members of the SSAP’s Youth Leadership Network – a network of young people from the African diaspora who bring lived experience, capacity, and expertise from the community.
Dr Kath Davies, Director of Collections and Research at Amgueddfa Cymru said: “It is due to the positive collaboration between Amgueddfa Cymru and the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel’s Youth Network and the Amgueddfa Cymru Producer,s that this project has reached such an important point in announcing the artists today. We are very grateful to the young people of the SSAP’s Youth Network for giving their time in working with us at the museum.
“I’m really looking forward to see the commissioned artworks on display at National Museum Cardiff, and we hope that it generates conversation about how we share the different perspectives and histories of Wales in a modern-day museum.”
Fadhili Maghiya, Director at the Sub Sahara Advisory Panel said: “The deeper you look into history, any kind of history, the more facets of truth are revealed. And it is important who does the looking, because we all come with lived and learned knowledge that shapes our vision. It’s no secret that history has rarely been written by people of colour.
“We are now in a time when we are taking ownership of our narrative and stepping from the footnotes of history into the centre. Our partnership with the museum exciting and rewarding for the community, and everyone involved. We are learning from each other and not afraid to challenge.”