Culture

New commissions to challenge ‘colonial narrative’ of Thomas Picton at National Museum Cardiff

05 Oct 2021 5 minutes Read
Gesiye and Thomas Picton

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.

‘Responsibility’

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

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.”

National Museum of Wales. Picture by Ham II (CC BY-SA 3.0)

‘Ownership’

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.”

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hdavies15
hdavies15
18 days ago

One day someone will eventually get around to doing something innovative to educate people in Wales about the history of Wales without referring to the English account. Best get it done before we get assimilated completely.

Sumner Tesker DPhil
Sumner Tesker DPhil
16 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

The article is about a Welsh slave trader?

Alan Murray
Alan Murray
18 days ago

Why does everyone seem to be so opposed to rewriting history? Isn’t it a historian’s job to rewrite it when new evidence becomes available? We need to be more robust with misguided criticism of this kind.

CJPh
CJPh
18 days ago
Reply to  Alan Murray

It’s the misappropriation of the term ‘history’ itself that is the issue. What is being proposed here, although fine in and of itself, has little to do with history and more with contemporary political activism and sociology. That’s fine, but it as as much ‘history’ as the fact that old Picton’s statue sits alongside men that would have not have been his biggest fan (but many of the “better men” of his era thought it right to place him there). History being rewritten from any ideological starting point (however much one ascribes to it) should be as absurd as the… Read more »

CapM
CapM
18 days ago
Reply to  CJPh

The line up of the “Heroes of Wales” statues in Cardiff City Hall were selected by a competition run in the Western Mail.
Thomas Picton was not selected but “better men” chose to put a statue of him in the collection anyway.
I don’t know who was elbowed out to accommodate him but his inclusion would have been an “ideological starting point” if ever there was one.

CJPh
CJPh
18 days ago
Reply to  CapM

Yup, totally agree – that’s exactly what I was saying. The attempts to counter the imperialist approach to history with critical theory/applies studies style ‘history’ is misguided at best.

j humphrys
j humphrys
18 days ago
Reply to  CJPh

Where I live, the bust of Lenin still stands though the populace, like the Russians themselves, rejected the communism that some current ideologues may wish to see, (spite of the fact having never lived under such conditions.) Such is youth?
Queen Victoria is likewise still enthroned on her perch in Wrecsam, though we
don’t much like that era. I think this is the correct approach.

CJPh
CJPh
17 days ago
Reply to  j humphrys

You’re allowed to like Lenin, you’re allowed to love the queen, you;re allowed to be woke, you’re allowed to be a populist right-winger; I disagree with your position, which I’m also allowed to do. The worry is that many of these positions are then imposed on others, wielded as cudgel, words changed, definitions changed, history changed, rights curtailed. Thankfully, Wales seems to be largely beyond a lot of this nonsense (except Cardiff, Unis and political parties of course) – further proof that Cymru is a very different place, immune to this Anglo-American culture war nonsense. We should heed the implicit… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
16 days ago
Reply to  CJPh

Agree.

Geoff Evans
Geoff Evans
18 days ago

It seems that the Welsh experience of colonialism is completely ignored, air-brushed out of history. Incredibly, no mention here of Cymru’s conquest and exploitation!

hdavies15
hdavies15
18 days ago
Reply to  Geoff Evans

That was part of what I was on about at the top of the page. However it seems that the native history and culture have to shut up and lump it while government and institutions push other agendas regardless of motives.

j humphrys
j humphrys
16 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

I remember the ice formations on the inside of our bedroom window as a kid.
Geez, it really made us feel privileged…………………

Ap Kenneth
Ap Kenneth
18 days ago

Iolo Morganwg should replace Picton, someone who had a influence on life in Wales to this day, plus he had a connection with Cardiff in a debtors prison.
Picton can pay his debt by being a figure of revulsion.

Siwan
Siwan
18 days ago

History is not being rewritten. If you read “Wellington’s Welsh General” by Robert Harvard you will discover the full horror of Picton’s time in the Caribbean. (Published in 1996)

arthur owen
17 days ago
Reply to  Siwan

You are right,history is not being re written only ignorance is being exposed.Incidentally,Picton was efficient,brave and an utter pig.It is only in children’s comics that the two things are incompatible.

hdavies15
hdavies15
17 days ago
Reply to  arthur owen

Men who are efficient, brave and utter pigs turn up in every generation. It is their input at times of crisis that enables likes of us to engage in debates about morality and ethics without worrying too much about those who would wish to inhibit us. We should also remember that what constitutes high morals and ethical behaviours change with the passing of time.

CapM
CapM
17 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

However what’s inconvenient for the “it was a different time” therefore different standards applied, defence of Picton is that during his time he was condemned by his peers for being cruel and sadistic.

That’s some “achievement” given the attitudes and mores of the time.
He was found guilty of torturing a young girl but got off on a technicality on appeal.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
17 days ago
Reply to  Siwan

Picton’s contribution was that he fought as a soldier and (in the opinion of Wellington, who had reason to know) made a contribution which Wellington valued. With other Europeans, and as part of the UK at the time, Wales helped defeat a dictator. Wales did something similar with the Nazis. One day Wales will run its own army, a necessary thing, and will no doubt join with Nato to defeat some other enemy when some external enemy comes for us. When this happens you will be grateful for men like Picton. Noone says fighters are saints. I don’t. But they… Read more »

CapM
CapM
17 days ago

I doubt if Picton would have been celebrated as he has if he had not had the “good fortune” to be the highest ranking officer to die at Waterloo.

At the time Wales was totally absorbed politically into England so “Wales helped defeat a dictator” suggests a degree of autonomy and choice in the matter that didn’t exist.

I agree that an independent Cymru should make a military contribution to maintaining international peace and security but that must be achieved with competent military leaders rather than competent military psychopaths..

Hannergylch
Hannergylch
16 days ago

Colston wasn’t ‘cancelled’: quite the opposite. By throwing him into the dock, the protesters gave him international publicity. Now the whole world knows that his statue had a white supremacist inscription that the Colston Society was defending to the bitter end.

Contrast that with the plaque that Brecon town council put up in 2010 (yes, really) to honour the slave trader Thomas Phillips. The Phillips plaque mysteriously disappeared shortly after Colston’s toppling — effectively ‘cancelling’ the evidence of recent civic white supremacism.

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