A Reflection from Degna Stone
Listen here to an audio version of this text on the first edition of the CONTESTED DESIRES podcast.
Crafting Nations is a series of online conversations as part of the CONTESTED DESIRES programme taking place across Summer 2020.
The theme - Crafting Nations - could not be more timely. Across the world we are seeing protests calling for equality for all citizens, for a reappraisal of the relationships we have with each other and for the way in which our histories are edited and our heritage is presented. These demands are neither new, nor confined to one country. From the removal of historic statues and proposals for new memorials, to demands for educational reform, we are rightly calling into question the connection between the past and the present, interrogating the ways that national identities are crafted.
In conversation with artists, producers, curators and heritage professionals we explore the role of arts, culture and heritage across Europe and parts of the Caribbean to gain a deeper understanding of its impact in defining who we are.
The first conversation took place on 18th June via Zoom. Facilitated by Cristina da Milano from ECCOM and community artist and writer, Francois Matarasso we invited Tiger de Souza (Volunteering, Participation and Inclusion Director at the National Trust) and Sajida Carr (Director of Operations and Development at Creative Black Country) to dig deeper into the constructs of Crafting Nations with the CONTESTED DESIRES artists and producer partners.
We invited Degna Stone to reflect on the conversation.
Crafting Nations: The need for radical change
This pandemic has been devastating for so many people, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US have brought racial injustice and inequality into sharp focus. It has given us a chance to reset, rethink and reimagine our nations. We have a chance to make some radical changes but will the systems currently in place make change impossible?
With this idea at the forefront of our minds, Tiger de Souza (Volunteering, Participation and Inclusion Director at the National Trust), outlined the work the Trust is doing to position heritage in a modern context. With around a third of their properties having direct links to colonial history, and some to the transatlantic slave trade, the National Trust is working to openly address this part of its history.
Sajida Carr (Director of Operations and Development at Creative Black Country) shared the organisation’s approach to involve the wider community in programming projects and activities. Panels made up of people from diverse disciplines commission artists and develop creative projects that tell the stories of the people living in the Black Country .
In our online breakout rooms, we learned more about the narratives around heritage in Europe and the Caribbean. In Spain and Portugal the discussion around racial justice has not yet fully entered the political discourse; whereas from a Caribbean perspective, the one-sided conversation in UK institutions (where the harsh realities of our colonial past are often hidden) is astonishing.
The National Trust was originally set up with the purpose of opening access to green and outdoor open spaces to working class people. Anecdotally there is a fear that being more transparent about the heritage of the National Trust properties might upset audiences.
In Barbados, an island in the Caribbean that heavily relies on tourism, places like St Nicholas Abbey plantation are more inclined to present a saccharine version of their difficult history. We need to be more conscious of telling stories in an honest way, however painful that might be. We must use heritage properties, like the Mercado de Escravos (Slave Market) in the centre of Lagos, Portugal, to change the narrative without falling into the trap of elevating the “positive legacies” of the transatlantic slave trade (food and music) to the point where it glosses over the horror.
It’s clear we need a different relationship with the past but we haven’t yet found a shared language that allows us to hold difficult conversations.
Statues, Distractions and Retelling Narratives
At the beginning of June 2020, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol city centre during a Black Lives Matter protest. Inevitably, our conversation turned to the symbolic merit of statues and the role of memory in public space.
I was surprised to learn that a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson was unveiled in Bridgetown in 1813, predating the statue in London by 30 years, and stands in National Heroes Square (formerly Trafalgar Square). Is Nelson still a Bajan ‘national hero’ or is he now out of place? The Largo Trindade Coelho square in Lisbon is home to the more recently unveiled statue of Father António Vieira with indigenous Brazilian children at his feet, which has raised questions over the legacies of colonialism and its relationship with the church.
Ultimately, the debate about statues is a distraction. Statues don’t preserve history; they exalt and commemorate individuals. In this moment we must ask ourselves: Who deserves to be exalted and what actions deserve to be commemorated? Why do symbols of empire remain long after the empire has fallen?
Perhaps a more urgent question is why are some people more upset by a statue being toppled than they are by racial injustice? We must bring the conversation back to the context of this present moment. This is an opportunity for radical change.
What is the artist’s role in balancing power? They have the power to retell contested histories, contributing to a sense of national identity by connecting directly with the public, but only when they are given access. Artists often face barriers related to sexuality, class, gender or race; those working at the intersections of these identities are more likely to face continued exclusion. Another barrier is the perceived necessity to “toe the line”, especially when responding to commissions or residencies. Artists often feel obliged to create palatable versions of difficult history. Art that doesn’t disturb the peace. In addition, artists often don’t have the financial or political clout to change policy and/ or laws.
We need a shift in responsibility. Instead of asking artists what can be done, institutions, organisations and funders need to ask themselves if they are facilitating inequality or working to eradicate it. Organisations like Museum Detox are helping to speed up the change of current thinking in our institutions but are we moving fast enough?
There was inevitable push back when the Amsterdam Museum renamed its permanent exhibition “Hollanders of the Golden Age” to the “Group portraits' of the 17th century” in 2014 but they knew that the term “Golden Age” presented a very limited view and erased the negative aspects of 17th century life, e.g. poverty, war, forced labour and human trafficking. Fear shouldn’t stop up from making necessary changes.
Anti-racist activism and the fight against inequality is not an intellectual exercise. Our actions and inaction are either anti-racist or they’re racist . Responsibility must be undertaken on a personal level too. We need to find the courage to interrogate ourselves and our processes. We need to find the courage to interrogate ourselves and our roles in failing to address the pernicious aftereffects of our colonial past. We can’t change what happened but that doesn’t mean that we have to live with interpretations that obscure and distort the harsh realities of empire. Education is key. An honest retelling of history is vital.
Using the UK as an example, the National Trust is the largest membership organisation in the UK with 5.6 million members, almost 10% of the UK population. There are 30 Creative People and Places projects across England reaching millions of people. Imagine how powerful it would be if we could present all of those people with an accurate narrative surrounding empire and colonialism. This is not about obscuring history by hiding away contentious artefacts. This is about accepting and speaking honestly about this past.
Imagine the ripple effect through the rest of society as the legacies of our colonial past become common knowledge, broadening interpretations and liberating our perception of heritage.
This is not an attack on heritage, this is an expansion.
Degna Stone is a poet and poetry editor based in Tyne and Wear. She is a contributing editor at The Rialto, a co-founder and former managing editor of Butcher’s Dog poetry magazine, and an Associate Artist with The Poetry Exchange. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University and received a Northern Writers' Award for her poetry in 2015. Her latest pamphlet Handling Stolen Goods is available from Peepal Tree Press.
 The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands, England, west of Birmingham and commonly refers to a region of more than one million people covering most of the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialised parts of the UK. [Wikipedia]  The historic building, Mercado de Escravos (Slave Market), reopened as a mueum in 2016, tracing the history of slavery in Lagos and the Algarve from the arrival of the first slaves in the mid 15th century. [https://www.portugalvisitor is a .com/portugal-museums/slave-museum] Lagos is the location of LAC (Laboratório de Actividades Criativas), a partner in the CONTESTED DESIRES programme.
 Ibram X Kendi introduces this concept in his book How To Be an Anti-racist.
Image: Real Rights, Digitising The Past For A Sustainable Future, Timespan, 2020