In 2007, two hundred years after the slave trade was abolished in what was then the British Empire, the artist Godfried Donkor came to work in Nottingham.
He chose lace as his subject – an exquisite and apparently innocuous symbol of Nottingham’s proud past. However, the cotton knitted with such skill into a coveted status symbol could have come from slave plantations.
This sort of transaction is familiar to modern minds, too. The production of luxury goods can still be synonymous with gross exploitation and human misery far from Britain’s own shores. We use the phrase “slave labour”, particularly when we talk about the sweatshops that globalisation has encouraged. Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, too. Worldwide it has been estimated that 27 million people are still enslaved today.
Donkor’s own residency, and his work with local people, came to an end in the centenary year itself. But his exhibition moves us into a new era. His paintings – on pages of the Financial Times – represent people, culture and goods criss-crossing the Atlantic in different eras. Six stunning outfits, worn by models at the exhibition’s opening, celebrate the vibrant lace fashions prized in West Africa today.
We have used this opportunity to investigate slavery in ways neglected by the more mainstream abolition events. We wanted to expose its hidden and unexpected aspects, both in the past and present day.
The exhibition, symposium and series of events formed an investigation conducted by renowned artists, scholars and cultural commentators. Some came from Nottingham, and work at our universities, while others visited our city. All brought an international perspective and challenging new viewpoints, from contemporary art, culture and academic research. All events were free to attend.
Lace & Slavery was also the first collaborative project by two new arts centres that will soon open in Nottingham – The New Art Exchange and the Centre for Contemporary Art Nottingham. They are proud to have worked together on a project that links the past to the present, and the local to the international. The issues raised by Lace & Slavery are still relevant to our shared city.