In January this year ceramics and glassmaker Helen Partridge Love and spoken word artist Noon Abdelrazig were awarded a micro-commission to work together to make new art that draws attention to slavery connections in the history of Aberdeen. In this guest blog Helen tells the story of their collaboration:
I was out walking during lockdown last summer and noticed three headscarved heads in the carved stone crest above the Powis Gate, two historic towers joined by an arch in the middle of Aberdeen University campus in Old Aberdeen. At that time George Floyd had just lost his life to racist policing over in the States and the Black Lives Matter movement was growing. Scottish slavery connections were also to the fore in the news so I was alert to what I thought these heads might mean.
Almost one year on, on Saturday 22 May, my collaborator Noon and I staged a small, socially distanced event at Powis Gate, the culmination of our Aberdeen Art Gallery micro-commission project.
Noon is a Sudanese-Aberdonian spoken-word artist and also a doctor at the Royal Aberdeen Childrens’ Hospital. I first saw Noon perform her poetry at Aberdeen University's student-led Wayword Festival last September and was impressed with her queenly presence and mesmerising poetic delivery. I then met Noon on a demonstration against the deportation of the autistic teenager Osime Brown, at the Castlegate. We agreed to collaborate and began to work on a poetry and ceramics street-art project and a performance at the Powis Gate. Later we applied for funding to make a film of our project via Aberdeen Art Gallery's series of micro-commissions which seek to bring greater diversity and representation into their collections. The idea fitted really well. It was necessary for us to build a working relationship via zoom because of Covid restrictions but we collaborated successfully and became friends.
On Saturday Noon performed her poem, and I attached my ceramic panels to the gate in a collaborative effort to draw attention to the use of the profits of slavery to build these Disneyland folly towers in the heart of Old Aberdeen.
Noon’s poem is titled 'The Violence of Identity' and begins and ends with a quote from the classical African playwright, Terentius Publius Afer:
'I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me'.
The powerful poem is Noon's personal response to the slavery history of the gate and racism in general. Noon says: "My poem draws on reflections on my journey in migrating from Sudan to the UK, and essays by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen entitled ‘Identity and violence : the illusion of destiny’. I explore how social relations and self-identity are threatened by crude – often uni-dimensional – definitions of identity. I believe that social and personal peace comes from acknowledging the singular complex, contrary, and conflicted human behind masks of identity. "I am a ceramic and glass artist (and ceramics technician at Gray’s School of Art). To make the panels for this microcommission I have been experimenting with pressmoulding, paperclay and glazes. I have made one ceramic panel with an embossed version of Noon's poem and a second with an imagined portrait of the enslaved woman, Quasheba, a name taken from paperwork of the Powis Leslie family's Jamaican estate. The radiating ceramic rays are to draw you through a portal to Quasheba's world.
The event on Saturday was filmed, and the resulting short film will be part of our Aberdeen Art Gallery micro-commission. Noon's floor-length dress for the event was made by modesty fashion designer Yousra Elsadig (Boutique de Nana), using recycled materials from Wales and Sudan. It is inspired by the Kandake Kushite warrior queens. The reggae music for the film intro is being created by local musician Nassif Younes. With the theme of time travel to 19th-century Jamaica, it has a sci-fi like melody breaking into dub.
Richard Anderson, historian and Emma Raymond and Neil Curtis, curators, of the University of Aberdeen have helped us by sharing their research into the history of the gate. It turned out the heads were not, after all, of enslaved people, but a heraldic pun on the Powis Leslie family's ancestral name: Moir/moor, or possibly even represented a boast about beheading moors in the crusades.
But the gateway was indeed built using wealth from plantations and compensation the Powis Leslie family received through the Abolition of Slavery act in 1834. Meanwhile those freed from slavery received nothing for their years, lifetimes, of unpaid labour and depraved treatment as chattel. Our imagined enslaved woman, Quasheba, appears on a registry of names and ages, and whether they'd been taken from Africa or born in Jamaica. That is pretty much all we know about the people enslaved to work on the Castile Fort Pen Estate belonging to the family that built the Powis Gate.
I also made small ceramic mementos to give away as Josiah Wedgewood did in the 19th century, when campaigning for the abolition of slavery. (see pic.)I did not like the begging posture of the original Wedgewood man in chains on his knees. In my modern version I wanted to make Quasheba, as I imagined her, proud, looking straight out at the viewer. The words on the mementoes are adapted from the first line of Noon's poem and are intended to make us white people look inside and confront our own racism.
“What do you see when you look at me?”
As well as the people I’ve already mentioned here, Noon and I would like to thank Angela Michael (Aberdeen University Head of Public Affairs, Stakeholder Engagement & Events), Ross Wilson (Senior Planner at Aberdeen City Council) and Lesley Anne Rose and Madeline Ward of Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums for helping and supporting the project.
The film will be shown online and/or in Aberdeen Art Gallery later this year. Due to Covid-19 restrictions not many people could be invited to the event. Only the camera crew, (Orbital AAV and Naomi Christie) some university staff and a few of the other micro-commission artists attended, but hopefully many more people will see the film.
Blog by Helen Love, ceramic and glass artist and micro-commission awardee