By Jackie Mwanza
The 25th of March 2007 marked 200 years – to the day – that a Parliamentary Bill was passed to abolish the slave trade in the then British Empire. This marked the beginning of the end for the transatlantic traffic in human beings and in most of 2007 media attention on the subject was wide spread in the UK with the televising of numerous documentaries and movies; the republishing of novels such as “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” by the former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano; and there were also a lot of exhibitions and talks around the country to mark this milestone in human history.
At the time I had been doing some art work loosely related to the Scramble for Africa, (a process of invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers between 1881 and 1914.) and thus felt a natural pull towards the subject of slavery. I started reading up on slavery and very quickly got emotionally affected by my research. I had been taught about the Transatlantic or Triangular Slave Trade in our Social Studies classes back home, and I couldn’t remember feeling this level of hurt and revulsion years back. I suppose there were one or two new things that I had learnt, that shocked me, but nevertheless we had learnt about the slave trade at home and I had also seen ‘Roots’ (A TV dramatization of author Alex Haley’s family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte’s enslavement to his descendants’ liberation) as a child.
As a result of my new emotional response to slavery I created a series of artworks to go alongside my work on colonialism and in May 2007 exhibited in a solo art show I entitled “Imperial Child”. In my own words “Imperial Child” is an exhibition on Colonialism and Black Slavery and the realisation and acknowledgement of these legacies by one born and raised in a former British Colony. Subsequent to this exhibition I received invitations to forums on Black History in Britain: I got invited to run workshops at The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) – based on my artwork; and was invited to the launch of the book “Towards Bicultural Competence: beyond black and white” by Gloria Gordon (my former university lecturer).
I had an exceptionally busy year as regards to “black history” and the more I attended meetings and delivered workshops and spoke to people about this body of work (Imperial Child), the more important highlighting injustices and racism in the world became important to me. Not to disregard the fact that racism and human slavery do still occur but, I am happier now that I have moved away from my self imposed label of “Imperial Child” and for finally exorcising the demons that came with feeling that I was born into a wronged race. I spent a lot of 2007 and subsequent years feeling angry about the suffering our black ancestors experienced during colonisation and slavery and clung to ideas of negative legacies that may be deemed evidence of any plight befalling black people today.
But in late 2009 I started making a conscious effort to change my mind set. I had already run a few workshops at the V&A museum, but this time the African and Caribbean Officer at the museum wanted my workshop (still based on my own artwork) to feature 5 inspirational black people who are current. I chose Barrack Obama (the first black President of the US, Michael Jackson (King of Pop, Singer, Song writer, Musician, Choreographer, Philanthropist, Child prodigy), Chinua Achebe (Author of Things Fall Apart and one of Nigeria’s most respected and read literary masters), Dr Mae C. Jemison (fifth black astronaut and the first black female astronaut in NASA history) and Wangari Maathai (Kenyan Scientist, Politician and Environmental Activist and the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). Running the workshop with the focus on what black people have achieved was truly enlightening – these five people had decided to apply their lives to their passions and not to the limitations that may have existed in their environment because of the colour of their skin or gender. As Dr Mae C Jamison so nicely put it, “I had to learn very early not to limit myself due to others limited imaginations. I have learned these days never to limit anyone else due to my limited imagination.”
This workshop was a turning point for me and I decided to start celebrating more what our black ancestors and peers have and are achieving now as opposed to moaning about injustices that occurred yesterday.
My soul searching and healing also reminded me of how my parents, teachers and most people old enough to remember the struggle for Zambia’s independence had narrated the apartheid days to me in my formative years back home – there was rarely any bitterness or malice towards our colonisers or that time in history. I had a conversation with a Zambian peer just last month, on this very subject and he also recalls his parents’ apartheid stories being very matter-of-factly. It would be interested though, to know how other Zambians have experienced our history.
As a consequence to my new outlook on being black my artwork has gradually veered away from entombment and more into the celebration of existence. I thrive to express the funny and positive elements of our heritage and also of my own life.
I am currently in the process of applying for funding to show case a body of work entitled “Imperial Child to Superwoman”.