Trading Faces online exhibition

Curator’s foreword

Dr Alda Terracciano, Project Creative Director and Curator (2009)

2007 witnessed the delivery of a significant number of projects and public events in Britain, aimed at commemorating the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A deeper understanding of the slave trade and its abolition also coincided with a wider acknowledgment of the achievements of people of African descent in the UK and internationally. In my role of originator and curator of the Trading Faces online exhibition, I saw this project as an opportunity for sharing resources available on other websites and portals, whilst making available new material which would contribute towards a fuller appreciation of the heritage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in British performing arts.

At the same time the curatorial approach to this online exhibition has incorporated a number of other issues which are intrinsic to the subject area. First of all the ‘intangible’ quality of the heritage of performance, due to the very nature of live events hinged on ‘the moment’, inextricably bound to their audiences and their memories, as transient as the variety of people that produce and witness their enactment. Therefore, although archives contain documents and other ‘traces’ of what happened in the past, the process of reconstructing such events needs to involve a plurality of subjects as a collective hermeneutical practice. For this reason I worked with groups of young people and professionals whose expertise, cultural identities and personal journeys are reflected in the curatorial choices and the interpretation of archival material and the video works published on this website.

Secondly, in working with archives of black performance one cannot avoid the issue of ‘invisibility’ that has characterized the sector for decades. Although the presence of artists of African descent in Britain had long preceded the more significant waves of post-war immigration, it is only in the last decade that the heritage sector has taken on board the responsibility of providing and promoting wider access to the historical records that bear testimony to their artistic achievements.

In this respect the practice of archival collection and representation of the black performing arts heritage appears to be inextricably linked to the wider process of political and psychological negotiation amongst the diversity of cultures coalesced within the nation. An inclusive reconstruction of British performance history requires institutions such as the V&A, British Library, Royal National Theatre, BBC, British Film Institute, The National Archives, to mention a few, to make visible and accessible records related to the multiplicity of cultures which they collected over the years. Research in repositories other than those involved in this project was meant as a starting point in this direction.

At the same time the process of consultation with artists and members of the public, which was carried out during the research period, was meant as a way of opening up the curatorial process and move it towards current forms of public engagement. The question here is not only of including voices from outside the heritage sector, but of re-moulding the practice of archiving and representing archival material, and to resist the tendency of objectifying the past within rigid co-ordinates of time and space. Involving black artists in the curatorial process was a way of privileging a synchronic rather than diachronic approach to history and memory. The essays on art forms, produced by a number of artists of African descent living in the UK, aim at shifting the focus from the object of the analysis to the discourse that produces it.

This is an approach to history indebted to the African practice of ‘Orature’, which implies a circularity of knowledge and a creative exchange between the performers and the members of the audience. As Kwesi Owusu notices in his study on black arts, Orature illustrates “the structural relationships that exist between apparently separate modes of creativity”, so that the total artistic act is subsumed in that of “forming the natural environment and forging relations of social co-operation”. The ‘circle’ best exemplifies such creative process as the makers of any artistic acts (which in the West is left to specialists in theatre, dance, poetry or painting) are the people, “the masses living out their life dramas and expressing them through cultural media and institutions”.

In this sense the Open Doors section of the online exhibition has been designed to give space to this kind of exchange. It offers a platform for knowledge exchange, dialogue and creative interactivity which we hope will grow beyond our expectations and offer new material, interpretative tools and creative perspectives on the subject to both national and international audiences.

On behalf of the creative team I wish you an interesting journey through the Trading Faces online exhibition.

More info here