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A gut wrenching experience: Lord Woolley reviews 'Black Atlantic'

Barbara Walker: "Vanishing Point 29" (Duyster), 2021 | Image courtesy of the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. © Barbara Walker, 2023

Lord Woolley

Lord Woolley

5 min read

The Fitzwilliam Museum's temporary exhibition revealing the truth of its connections to the transatlantic slave trade is bold and brave – but to be truly meaningful it must have a permanent and integral presence

The Black Atlantic exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is bold, brave and very timely. 

When it comes to the transatlantic enslavement of Africans, for institutions whose wealth was directly derived from one of humanity’s most inhuman acts, it’s a subject they’d rather not talk about. And if they do, then it’s often in denial, or at least seeking to lessen their role. But not the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

I think – hope – that it has begun a long journey, and not before time, that attempts to lay bare some very uncomfortable truths: namely how the Fitzwilliam family’s wealth – from the enslavement of Africans – was used to establish one the most prestigious cultural museums in the country. 

But it has done more than lay bare uncomfortable truths. Through its brilliant co-curator Dr Jake Subryan Richards, the museum has attempted not only to give a voice to the unheard enslaved Africans, but also to the Black artists of today whose expressive work decouples the “slave” from the human being so that they emerge as real people made of flesh and bones with a soul to be understood. 

As I entered the great museum I did so with trepidation. The last time I walked up the Fitzwilliam’s stairs was to visit the David Hockney exhibition, which was about colour and fun that mostly just made you smile. The Black Atlantic exhibition was all together different.

I know many people of African descent like me, who choose to put the industrial enslavement of Africans in a trauma box marked: “Closed, until I have moments of strength to open it”. 

It doesn’t mean we ignore the subject or its legacy of global disorder which has left the African continent riddled with extreme poverty. It just means you know that you have to get on with life and, on your own, make a difference. 

Pain, anger, even hatred were but a few of the emotions I had to process

But I was asked by The House magazine to review this exhibition now and I duly accepted – fully knowing that reopening the box, albeit on my terms, still comes with a health warning.

Two things hit when you enter the designated space: one is the global map for the transatlantic trade of human beings. It truly was globalism many centuries before we even invented the term. Then the two portraits – one of the museum’s founder, Richard Fitzwilliam, and the other, of a man unknown, but believed to be either the great author Olaudah Equiano or his fellow abolitionist Ignatius Sancho. 

The clever juxtaposition of the two reminds us of how the victor tells the story, and with that who gets to be remembered and who gets to be heard. The same device continues with the brilliant contemporary artist Barbara Walker who reimagines those endless period portraits with the odd Black face, painted in to show a family’s wealth, in which she takes out all the white faces apart from silhouette, leaving the Black subject to own the space. The image becomes simply, but truly, powerful.

For me the inevitable moment of trauma came after watching an eight-minute video of a Black actor reciting the autobiography of Equiano as he relives some of the most harrowing incidents imaginable on the slave ship, during the passage from Africa to the new world. To have his experience of barbarity and inhumanity spoken quietly and calmly to you – as if Equiano had come back from the grave to bear personal testimony – couldn’t be more gut wrenching. 

Pain, anger, even hatred were but a few of the emotions that I had to process before daring to move on. Frankly the rest seemed a blur; interesting, thought provoking but not earth shattering. It didn’t take long to get to the end, not because I was in rush, but there’s not a lot there. When I enquired: “Is that it?” the attendee suggested I could go back again, or put a note in the suggestions box. I declined both.

As I left the exhibition, the main museum was heaving with attendees. Normal business had resumed. And yet this normal business of a global collection of artefacts that tens of thousands of people come to see each year is there because of the history of what they didn’t see in the free exhibition next door. 

I was already still processing my anger which was now compounded by feelings of disquiet that that wonderful bit on the side will soon be packed away in boxes until the next “wonderful bit on the side”. 

Man in a Red Suit
Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit c. 1740-1780| © Royal Albert Memorial Museum _ Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

So, what next for the Fitzwilliam having made this small, yet bold, step? I don’t know, is the short answer. But if this is to be a meaningful journey, it will need to take even bolder steps that remind every person that enters, and the museum itself, about its most uncomfortable truth: that this cathedral of high art is here because of the family’s endeavours in the darkest art of enslaving Africans for great profit. 

And while history cannot be undone, the journey of reparatory justice that gives voice to the unheard, and gives dignity and agency both inside and outside the museum, could be writ large in the museum’s long-term plans. 

The Fitzwilliam has the opportunity to have perhaps the greatest conversation and journey it has ever had. We’ll just have to wait and see if it is truly ready for it. I hope so. 

Lord Woolley is a Crossbench peer and principal of Homerton College, Cambridge

Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance
Venue: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 7 January 2024

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