Written by Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London

As part of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, various institutions in the UK are holding a selection of exhibitions dedicated to this theme. One such is the V&A’s Uncomfortable Truths, The Shadow of Slave Trading on Contemporary Art and Design, on until the 17 June. Despite a title that is ever so slightly misleading, this exhibition was really a lot of fun. This is not something I would often end up saying at the end of visiting an exhibition but in this case, it is entirely true.

To paraphrase the foreword of the catalogue to the exhibition:

‘This exhibition raises many questions, to which there may be no definitive answers: why is slavery so often discussed as something disconnected from the present? Why is Trans-Atlantic slavery seen as a black issue rather than a human one, by blacks as well as whites? Why does it take arbitrary anniversaries to bring these issues to the fore? How do we understand the roles of the perpetrators and the victims from our standpoint in the present? What can we learn from the history of resistance to slavery? How has slavery contributed to the benefit – and detriment – of the world we live in now? And, how has this institution, like many others, profited from the wealth generated through slave trading?’

The exhibition looks at the work of eleven international artists whose work is displayed throughout the V&A’s permanent collection. There are two ways to view the exhibition: either with the colourful map depicting on the ground floor, second and fourth levels where the new works are to be found or by following a series of five walks through the galleries, looking specifically at the works within the permanent collection and their relation to the slave trade. I chose the former, if for no other reason than I had a time restraint. Dodging past the queues for the Kylie and Surrealism exhibitions (the latter of which I still very much want to see), I was more than relieved to discover I needn’t queue and could make my way around the galleries, avoiding all the tourists who had been deposited outside the museum by the tour buses that lined the road outside. The first work by Julien Sinzogan entitled "The Gates of Return, 2006 – 7", surround a doorway in colourful patterns emblematic of Africa in the sails of the boat and in the all-encompassing robes and veils of the figures. On the left hand side there are two streams of people: one a colourful mass away from the boat, the other a grey-toned thick outlines depiction of a group of slaves chained and semi-naked walking hesitantly towards what will in essence alter their lives and those of their children forever. This made me wonder whether the artist was suggesting that those who became displaced peoples due to being shipped across oceans and continents returned colourful, confident, essentially but undifferentiatable figures. In other words, they left as Africans and returned as multilingual and in some cases, enterprising beings that belonged neither in one place nor the other. Then again, I pondered as I made my way through the shop towards the garden and the second work, very few returned. I thought then that perhaps Sinzogan was attempting to express (and this only became clearer later) that those who were taken carried Africa within them as the defining element of themselves after having been reduced to the bareness of what defined them as human. These figures emerged at their destination by definition only as African, no more, and this is how they chose to retain their dignity and strength. This comes across in the painting by the boldness of colour and pattern and the movement created. The title refers to the cities of Zanzibar, Goréz and Ouidals as the Gates of No Return.

The large sculpture in the fountain pool in the central courtyard garden by Romauld Hazoumé "Dan-Ayido-Houedo/Arc-en-Ciel, Symbole de Perpétuité, 2006 – 7", is of a suspended circular serpent who eats its own tail thus forming the symbol of infinity. The serpent’s body is made from jerry cans in deep reds and blues. It refers to the transportation of petrol in jerry cans on motorbikes, a highly dangerous but necessary entrepreneurial activity. Hazoumé questions the ongoing impact of exploitation and the continuity of slavery.

Moving on to the stairwell courtyard indicated on my gallery plan, is the work of four artists. Lubaina Himid has placed cardboard cutout figures throughout the V&A galleries; collaged or painted on the front and who have taped to their backs a name card and a Balance Sheet. The name cards describe partly the responsibilities of the figure, such as:

The Drummer

My name is Musenda

They call me Dan

I used to commemorate sacred events

Now I play at parties

But I have their thanks

His balance sheet reads 0. The figures are from the series "Naming the Money, 2004" and are placed, hidden sometimes, within the permanent collection to restore a black presence to history. The balance sheet acts as a reminder of the unpaid work of the slaves and their contribution to generating wealth for others.

Opposite this piece is Christine Meisner’s "Recovery of an Image: A Video-Tale Germany/Brazil/Nigeria, 2005". A video work that is difficult to hear due the foot traffic of people making their way past the alcove in which this is placed, meaning that I was straining forward attempting to catch the words being spoken by a rich and deep male African voice recounting his return to Lagos after having been taken to Brazil as a slave. To the detriment of this piece, due to the fact I was straining to hear the verbal story, which was very interesting, I forgot to look at the visuals. The voice tells of how English shapes were safer for the Portuguese ones would take them back to slavery. He recounts how on his way to Brazil he lost his orientation and lost Lagos and upon arrival lost some of himself to Brazil. When he was able to journey home no-one knew of his family. He had been allocated a quarter in Lagos from the government. In Lagos people were jealous of the achievements of some of the returning freed slaves. He suspected his parents had sold him in to slavery but he cannot find them to ask. The joy on his return faded and he began to think back to Brazil and believe in the lie. He had created a new identity in Brazil that was in contrast to his identity in Nigeria. He would speak Portuguese when he was upset. When he left for Brazil, the past added something to him; upon his return he realized he had not past for he had been Brazilianised. In Brazil he had cultivated his Africanism but upon his return he realized he had been cultured Bahir and he realized the importance of linking people to their history.

Another video piece sits in the corresponding alcove by Michael Britto "I’m a Slave 4 U, 2005", an image of a plantation house sets the scene. Two female slaves appear on the screen, as though on a stage in a play. One of them hums a tune praising God whilst the other realizes that God is speaking to her. We hear her side of the conversation. She thanks God for her master, Max who, she says with great enthusiasm, a large smile and genuine thankfulness, ‘feeds me once a day and who only takes my womanhood three times a month. Oh and thank you Lord for letting me work inside the house, it’s so hot out there on the fields and I get to sit inside and drink me some lemonade’. She then realises that God is asking her to free her people, to take them up north. She tells God, with a big smile on her face, ‘thank you God but I think Hattie would be better for the job’ and tells him that she just isn't the woman for the job. When he persists she holds her hand to her ear and says, ‘Oh, God, I’m sorry, we’re breaking up here, there’s some mighty static’.

There is also a series of delicate pencil drawings by Tapfuma Gutsa, "Tribute to Sango, 2002" but by this stage I was wanting to get on with the rest of my trail.

Up to level 2 I went where I discovered the majority of the galleries had been cordoned off and I was unable to see the pieces therein. I therefore spent some time looking for the pieces that were supposedly placed in this section. Within the recreated set of Chinoiserie stands another of Himid’s figures. I continued my search and after I had nearly given up on the hunt (my map reading skills have never been very good), I happened upon the most beautiful piece in the exhibition "Sir Foster Cunliffe, Playing, 2007" by Yinka Shoibare, which was placed within a recreation of a mirrored gold gilt room from Norfolk House on St. James Square in London from 1756, a headless archer stands with his bow drawn. The figure is dressed in a tailored military style jacket and plus fours of brightly coloured African patterns. Sir Foster Cunliffe was the grandson and namesake of a prominent Liverpool politician, philanthropist and slave merchant. He founded the Royal Society of British Bowmen to encourage archery as a leisure pursuit amongst his peers. The single headless figure is said to embody one particular beneficiary of the slave trade, while also representing the broader links between the self-indulgent lifestyles of a few at the expense of many. Diagonally opposite him is his bulls eye with three previous arrows that missed their mark therein. Framed by the opulent mirrors and gold and white decorative pattern of the room, the colourfulness of the figure and his dramatic movement is very striking.

Outside the room, my eyes now fully opened to the fact that this exhibition is more a treasure hunt than a straightforward exhibition, my eyes fell on a rather striking book within a glass vitrine with an engraving of Job Ben Solomon and William Ansah Sessarakoo, which was first published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in June 1750. Solomon was the son of a Muslim priest from The Gambia and Sessarakoo a prince from Ghana. Both were tricked into slavery but freed on account of their noble origins and education. Solomon lived in Britain in the 1730s and Sessarakoo between 1749 – 50. What made this discovery so extraordinary was that I doubt very much I would have either seen it or looked at it properly before Uncomfortable Truths. It brings to light that the objects within the museum have an immense history to them that has enormous resonance and reference to today. This appears a rather obvious thing to state but it is not often that it is illustrated in such an unexpected and clever fashion.

Up to level 4 where I found a treasure trove of objects and artworks that I had never before seen at the V&A. Alongside a plaque asking ‘Wedgwood or Ancient Greek?’ is another of Himid’s cut-out jester-esque figures; again placed next to "The Sleeping Nymph, 1820 – 24" and finally in The Strawberry Room, a recreation of said room from Lee Priory, Kent (1783 – 1794). There were two pieces by Keith Piper "Lost Vitrines, 2006 – 7" that I was unable to find. I then ambled through a permanent display dedicated to The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was fascinating. Hung within a small room dedicated to the Museum of British Art at South Kensington which was created as part of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), was the first gallery specifically intended for paintings by living British artists. The gallery was open in the evenings and on Sundays to allow working people to visit. This was unheard of at the time. The small hang consisted of paintings by Edwin Landseer, John Constable, George Smith, Charles West Cope, amongst many others and contains a sensitive and beautiful collection of paintings.

The last two pieces on my tour were placed at the top of a stairwell. The first is a sculptural collage by El Anatsui "Akua’s Surviving Children, 1996" made in Denmark. In 1792 Denmark became the first European nation to outlaw slave trading though until the ban took effect in 1803 it actually stepped up the trade. Akua’ba is a Ghanian fertility figure that protects children. El Anatsui made this symbolic clan after salvaging driftwood from Denmark’s northern coast. The scarred logs represent slaves imported from the African Gold Coast to the Danish West Indies. Anatsui performed rites of restitution scorching the wood in his workshop furnace and embedding it with nails.

The last piece is a series of delicate pencil drawings, "Quilombolisation and Portraits of Personalities from Recife, Pernambuco, 2005" Quilombolos are Brazilian settlements populated by the descendants of runaway slaves first brought to Brazil from Angola and the west coast of Africa. The word kilombo originates in central Angola and refers to the coming together of different tribes in order to rebel against the slaving authorities. Meisner’s drawings document the everyday aspects of life in these communities, from a lone male who walks upright and carries in his right hand a plastic carrier bag between one house made of mud and a tin roof and a house made of brick with glass windows. Another drawings is of a small doorless house with glassless windows that is connected up to a satellite dish outside of it. These strange parallels are symptomatic of a displaced people, from Brazil to so many countries throughout Africa. It is this displacement and loss of identity and land that one takes away from the exhibition, and is a complete paradox to the monumentality and greatness that is the V&A that holds within it objects that define Britain and ‘Britishness’ as well as modernity and key moments in history. It glosses over, or rather has glossed over, prior to this exhibition, the objects therein that were created due to the displacement of millions of people. It makes me wonder, with what is currently taking place in the world today, whether a similar situation is arising that will only be clear to us, if we choose to see it, in a hundred years time. What strikes me as extraordinary is that of all eleven artists shown in this exhibition, only three are currently working within Africa itself. This says it all and more so about the contemporary art market.

UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTHS runs until the 17 June 2007

Victoria and Albert Museum

Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL