Magazine article Art Monthly

Human Cargo

Magazine article Art Monthly

Human Cargo

Article excerpt

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

September 22 to November 24

Occasionally an exhibition comes along which resuscitates the idea that art can make a difference; that through participation an audience can effect a form of social change. Much socially engaged work, because of the pressure for results on the commissioning process, can drift into a safe zone where the audience is engaged in a nominal way. Predetermined exchanges can leave the visitor feeling merely representative, like a sketched figure in an architect's visualisation.

The commissioned artists' responses to the subject of historic and contemporary slavery are woven inextricably into the Human Cargo exhibition, which has been deftly curated by Zoe Shearman and Len Pole. Any assumption that a traditional museum context would present such issues at a comfortable distance shifted on tracing the route of Raimi Gbadamosi's interventions. The 'two-way process of critical reflection' between the artist and the curators at Plymouth was most poignant in the timeline of slavery fromthe 1450s to the present day which encircled themain exhibition space. There, in contrast to the other eminent oil portraits of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, haunting generic silhouettes stood in for images of 18th-century Jamaican slave rebels. Gbadamosi guides the visitor on an alternative tour--'Drake's Circus'--with a map in which the artist has renamed rooms and indicated specific objects of interest relating to the history of slavery. For example, in themaritime paintings room, which becomes 'Paintings Galore', he brings to attention Jules Girardet's Napoleon on the Bellerophon, in Plymouth Sound of 1815, noting that, despite abolishing slavery in 1794, France reinstated it in 1802 under Napoleon. Awareness dawns that the entire economic and cultural fabric of Western society can be indicted with slavery.

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Spread on the floor across the room is Melanie Jackson's installation The Undesirables, a re-creation in paper models, animation and etchings of the events surrounding the wreck of the cargo ship MSC Napoli off the coast of Devon earlier this year. The same work is being shown also at Arnolfini's 'Port City' exhibition as a self-contained piece, but here the work plays with the context of the museum as a repository of cultural remains. Jackson's inventory of the detritus washed up on the beach possesses the bizarre juxtapositions of Dadaist poetry:' ... BATTERY ACID/FLIP FLOPS/7 OGDEN CIGARETTE CARDS FEATURING RACING PIGEONS ...' And her interviews chart the polarisation of local opinions of the event as either a 'haul of treasure' or a 'scene of devastation'. …

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