Remembering the Crack of the Whip: African-Caribbean Artists in the UK Visualise Slavery

... In titling this text Remembering the Crack of the Whip: African-Caribbean Artists in the UK Visualise Slavery, I seek to make use of Bob Marley's powerful song, Slave Driver, from Catch a Fire, the major-label-debut album for Jamaican reggae band the Wailers, released on Island Records in the spring of 1973. In the song, which despite its powerful content, lasts somewhat less than three minutes, Bob Marley sings, 'Ev'ry time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalised our very souls'. In Bob Marley: Lyrical: Genius, Kwame Dawes observes that 'In "Slave Driver" Marley reveals the lessons that he has learned about the history of slavery and explores how this history shapes the life of a ghetto youth in Jamaica'.(1) Within this song, Marley links historical memories of the slave trade to the plight of the modern-day Jamaican sufferer and other poor black people's modern-day poverty, degradation and servitude. This is one of the most profound ways in which slavery has, for many people of the African Diaspora, become a signifier of identity. This paper will seek to explore the iconography of slavery in the work of British artists of African-Caribbean background, and the ways in which these artists - who tended to be the children of the mid-twentieth century pioneering generation of black immigrants to Britain - have remembered what Bob Marley called the crack of the whip. These artists evoke a memory of slavery that locates this act of remembering, of visualising, at the heart of contemporary expressions of black-British identity, that crystallised in the wake of the New Cross Massacre and the 'riots' of the early 1980s.

One of the first black artists of the 1980s' generation to pay particular, considered and deeply penetrating attention to the iconography of slavery was Donald Rodney, a British artist of African-Caribbean background, born in Smethwick, Birmingham, in 1961.(2) One of the most consistently innovative, resourceful and intelligent artists of his generation, he battled with sickle-cell anaemia - a frequently debilitating disease of the blood, from which he suffered - until he succumbed to the condition, dying in March 1998. Rodney's work, from his earliest days as an art student at Trent Polytechnic, in Nottingham, in the East Midlands through to his final one-man show at South London Gallery, some six months before he died, had consistent and distinctive qualities that marked him out as a practitioner of unique ability and sensitivity. In a gesture that was typical of his devastating intellect, Rodney made a seemingly simple, yet profound work that utilised the familiar, everyday box of household matches, England's Glory. Manufactured by Bryant and May, the boxes of matches were commonly used by smokers, householders and anyone else who needed to strike a light. The trademark on the front of the box of matches, garlanded by the words ENGLAND'S GLORY, was a lithograph of a sea-going vessel, above and below which, the words MORELAND GLOUCESTER appeared, a reference to the Gloucester matchmaker S.J. Moreland and Sons, a firm who made and sold matches under the trade name England's Glory, and was taken over by Bryant and May early in the twentieth century. In a simple yet brilliant act, Rodney replaced the familiar image of the vessel with an equally familiar, but altogether different ship, the Brookes of Liverpool, which infamously depicted captured and shackled Africans. With this singular montage, Rodney effortlessly parodied England's glory and in so doing advanced the proposition that England's glory was more accurately England's shame.

The artistic device of linking Britain, or England, with the history of slavery was a hugely important one, used not only by Rodney but also other Black-British artists. As mentioned earlier, British people tended to regard slavery as an abomination that happened elsewhere, and was the fault or the enterprise of other people. This was perhaps a consequence of so relatively few Africans in servitude being landed on Britain's shores during the centuries of the Atlantic Slave Trade. With relatively few enslaved Africans in the country during the centuries of slavery, Britain's subsequent memory of its involvement in slavery suffered from pronounced bouts of historical muddle and selective amnesia, in which slavery was cast primarily as an American iniquity, from which wretched Africans and Negroes were freed by the good graces of William Wilberforce and others. However, Rodney was here to tell British people that they were involved in and implicated in the whole sordid enterprise of slavery, as much as evil-doers elsewhere in the world.

(1) Kwame Dawes, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (London: Sanctuary, 2002), 56. For more on 'Slave Driver' see also 'Slave Drive' in Soul Rebel: The Stories Behind Every Bob Marley Song 1962 - 1981, ed. Maureen Sheridan (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1999), 35.

(2) For information and material on Donald Rodney, see Richard Hylton, ed., Doublethink (essays by Eddie Chambers and Virginia Nimarkoh) (London: Autograph, 2003) and 'His Catechism: The Art of Donald Rodney', Third Text 44 (Autumn 1998): 43 - 54.

The full version of the above text, Remembering the Crack of the Whip: African-Caribbean Artists in the UK Visualise Slavery, appeared in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 34:2, 293-307 2013.