Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The calm before the storm

Creatives without Borders explores the triangular history of Africa, Europe and America, discovering much that was hidden along the way.

Zsuzsanna Ardó
26 October 2015
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Mike Lacovone, artist participant in the AEA project. All Rights Reserved.

Africa, Europe and America is a Creatives without Borders international arts project.

I went to the Caribbean in 2013 and then again in 2014 to paint and photograph, and participate in an international exhibition of artists from and beyond the region. I also arrived with a curatorial concept I prepared back in London: Africa, Europe, America (AEA).

A curatorial project like this seemed particularly relevant and timely in the current context of debates and new laws about what is referred to as contemporary slavery.

Hear a later version of the poem below set to music by Toby Twining and performed by the Grammy Award winning Roomful of Teeth at Ravinia in Chicago. On 5 September 2016 the collaboration had its European premiere as a digital installation in the European Parliament in Brussels.

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Poem by Zsuzsanna Ardó; Music by Toby Twining; Conducted by Brad Wells; Performed by Roomful of Teeth: Cameron Beauchamp, Dashon Burton, Martha Culver, Erid Dudley, Estelí Gomez, Caroline Shaw, Than Scoggin, Virginia Warnken Kelsey, and Brad Wells (artistic director).


THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

The calm before the storm.
White, sizzling sky frames the black silhouettes.

Stark.
Sharp.
Screaming eyes.

The light seeps under my eyelids.

The calm before the storm.
White, sizzling sky frames the black silhouettes.

The image insists.
Closing the lids, tight, hardly makes a difference.

The black silhouettes of the white sky seep through the fence.

A split second later, a cacophony of sounds shatters my eardrums.

Eyes triggered open, I scan the explosion of colour around me.

The calm before the storm?
White, sizzling sky frames the colourful silhouettes.
All quite different; all quite similar.

I wind my way through the heaving crowds.

I’m not alone. Alexander Dumas père, a freed slave and the writer of classics, is my virtual company.

Dumas and I talk about Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) and Le comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo). His characters that have entered the popular imagination and consciousness, albeit divorced from the realities of Dumas’ life.

I disentangle my sticky, dry tongue from my even drier palate, as Dumas’ riposte to a racist comment, in a Parisian salon or some such, percolates through my mind.

“Mon pere était un mulâtre,
mon grand-père était un nègre
et mon arrière grand-père un singe.

Vous voyez, Monsieur: ma famille commence où la vôtre finit.”

(“My father was a mulatto,
my grandfather was a Negro,
and my great-grandfather a monkey.

You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.”)
—Alexander Dumas père

Salty, sweaty lips, the tongue sticks to the parched palate.
Heat hangs heavy.
The air hovers, hesitant.

The dark elegance and witty intelligence of Dumas’ quip makes me smile.

The time and place of the space I had just entered grounded the project further in local geography and history. Christopher Columbus founded the first European colony in this part of the Caribbean in 1492, then referred to as Hispaniola. It was the first place in America where Europeans shipped slaves from Africa. It was also the first place in history where a slave revolt succeeded and led to the formation of a state.

AEA was particularly well-suited for a Creatives without Borders project as it focused on the dynamics between the continents.

Not the borders, but the journeys between the borders.

Not the fences but what’s between them.

Interpreting triangles

Artists were invited to consider not places or people, but the interactions between them over time, to explore the triangular relationships—past or present—between Africa, Europe and America.

“The images, which make up my triptych, are from my travels. They are multi-layered compositions. I played with transparency, so the viewer could enter into the topic and read through the images to reach the depths of the story being told through the AEA project.

I created a bridge from my understanding of the slave trade and the profiting that people enjoy by dehumanizing people for their benefit.

I want this combined, recognizable familiarity to touch upon the viewer’s notion of slave trade and bring attention to the often-ignored manner of today’s human trafficking and slavery.”

—Ralph Brancaccio, artist participant in the AEA project

In the English and French brief, I invited local and international artists to explore visually any of the multiplicity of triangular links between the three continents. The filter of the artistic interpretation was up to the artist: it could be cultural, psychological, historical, economic, political, and so on.

As the curator, I thought it was helpful to fix three parameters. The first was the relatively small size (A5) of the canvas, making it easy to journey with. The second was the surface of the work. All the work had to be 2D, on paper, and light enough to travel. To preempt any problems with paper shortage on site, I brought a large supply of recycled, quality paper with me from London for local artists to use. The third parameter was a ‘given’, embedded in the concept of the triangular relationship itself: the investigation of triptychs. Working within the triptych tradition was a vital part of the concept and of the actual installation design of the works. The notion of having to journey while looking at the installation, being compelled to move around physically, intellectually and psychologically in search of resonances between images, was a core element of the curatorial concept.

“Full circle, the emergence of life and the struggle to survive and live to one’s full potential.

This project speaks of my life cycle starting with my genetic roots in Africa and my family’s migration through Europe and finally reaching New York City in the late 1800s.

This story, my personal story, is very relevant today with the world’s great crisis of emigration and migration. But for my brave grandmother, leaving her little island in Croatia by herself at the age of 17, would I be here? In a sense, we are all in a boat precariously rocking on violent seas. Who will survive and where will that be? One can view personal journeys through this triptych project. I think of my grandmother, arriving in Ellis Island by herself at her tender age, and forging a life for herself and her future generations. We are all on the boat.”

—Marianne Knipe, artist participant in the AEA project

From the moment I started working on the AEA curatorial concept, I was visually ‘jamming’ with the idea of jazz as the theme for my own triptych contribution. For me it had to be jazz. I found that the darkly ironic yet elegant insight of Dumas’ quip resonated with 'I’m white inside' in Fats Waller's classic jazz number '(What did I do to be so) black and blue'. Thus Fats Waller joined me and Dumas père on this journey, and that song—lyrics by Andy Razaf, music by Thomas Fats Waller and Harry Brooks—became the specific inspiration of my eponymous triptych.



Louis Armstrong performs 'Black and Blue'.

As the curator, I was also curious to see if jazz—a positive, creative, lasting outcome of the triangular dynamics—might surface as a recurring theme. As it turns out, the beat of jazz is not distinct in AEA except for in my own jazz-inspired piece.

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Zsuzsanna Ardó. All Rights Reserved.

During the inevitable discussions about the theme of the project, however, I tried not to refer to interpretation options and relevant contexts such as colonialism, globalism, or slavery. The creative process is rendered more engaging and less directed, limiting and limited if the artists have the space and time to develop their own filters. This open, un-prescribed process produced a fascinating variety of angles, be it figurative, abstract, or anything in between. Some work turned out deeply philosophical, others political, while yet others avoided entering these arenas and approached the brief in other creative ways. Since the theme of the project is potentially philosophical as well as political, some classic questions surfaced in the process, such as ‘is art by definition political?', 'can it be apolitical?', or 'is “apolitical art” simply an oxymoron?’

The peeling of the eternal and ever-relevant onion of ‘art and the social context in which art exists' was not without surprises. Two painters, one from the US and another from Holland, stated that they never participate in projects they consider political. Interestingly, neither of these artists interpreted the concept of Africa, Europe and America as ‘political’ at the beginning. But once they came to see that the set of triangular relationships over time could be related to issues of colonialism, globalism and slavery, they decided to self-censor their process, not allowing themselves to make explorations through any filter.

To what extent can art be the pure self-expression of the individual, unfettered by conscious and subconscious political agendas of realities? A subject of many discussions, PhDs, conferences and books, the question felt re-energized by its re-contextualization in the everyday artistic practice of the group, beyond the elevated, abstract and intellectual realm of philosophy.

“… I then researched the historic shipping routes to compare with the current shipping routes to find that they aren't very different.

Of course the hardest part to reconcile is that these were slave trade routes, and so many of the Western countries built their wealth on the backs of stolen people.

And of course, I can't hide behind the thought of imperialistic benefits that my country still has based on the decades of production from slave labour.

It's embarrassing and callous.”

—Mike Lacovone, artist participant in the AEA project

Bizarre how relevant these triangular dynamics are. They cut, in many ways, to the core of present day realities.

Collaborative explorations

AEA was driven by the notion of the triptych on two different visual scales. In the first stage, each artist created a triptych on A5 cards that interpreted the AEA brief through their own filter and creative process. In the second stage, we collaborated to create a large-scale triptych using the small images as building blocks. All the small images relating to Europe were combined to create a collaborative collage on Europe, and we did the same for Africa and America.

“All of us wear masks. Whatever the continent, the faces are the same, only their representation varies. That’s why I chose masks to embody the cultures of the three continents: Africa, Europe and America.

Since we are enslaved by the image we’d like to project, masks permit us to hide or express ourselves according to our desires and needs. For Europe, the Venetian mask seemed to me as the most striking choice. The long beak of the birds is rather frightening but used in carnivals or in theaters today. In Africa, the mask marks the stages of life. Masks are the symbol of political, social and religious power, and they accompany everybody along their lives. In America, the MacDonald-clown mask is, for me, the symbol of colonisation, 'oversize’ and capitalism. In the country where anything is possible.

We all aspire to similar ideals, for a better society, enriched by lessons of the past, hoping for a brighter future. The destinations are similar, but the paths may be different.

—Pascale Nesson, artist participant in the AEA project

The different interpretations and visual grammars create new associations and shades of intertextual meaning once placed next to each other. Hence a multitude of dialogues emerge.

This large-scale collage triptych engages the viewers in problem-solving and critical viewing: viewers are invited to navigate their way between the three parts of the triptych by tracing the various artists’ interpretation of Africa, Europe and America. While making the physical journey, they can identify the respective style, medium, and focus of the various artists, and locate them within the other works of the collage. The creative challenge of the viewer is to engage and cross-reference the seemingly disparate but, in reality, interconnected pieces.

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The AEA project installed at the Boz’Art en Baz’Art international art festival in May 2015. Photo by Author. All Rights Reserved.

The broad implications of the theme include slavery: a tragic historical fact throughout human history and across the planet, both before and after the three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery has existed in most societies in some shape or form throughout history; its complex legacy textures our reality in visible and invisible ways. Today traditional slavery per se was finally abolished in all countries—in principle that is—when Mauritania outlawed chattel slavery in 2007. Different kinds of trade in people continues though, be it human trafficking, debt bondage, or other forms of ownership of fellow humans framed as ‘others’.

Forcibly moving people around, be it in the past or the present, is one thread of the story.

Forcibly preventing people from moving is another part of this narrative, which is currently building remarkable momentum.

Building borders, barriers and fences have become the order of the day.

Another day, another wall.

Another night, another life swept ashore.

AEA is not just about the past, but just as much about the present and the future.

“My father was a mulatto,
my grandfather was a Negro,
and my great-grandfather a monkey.

You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.

—Alexander Dumas père

The dark elegance and witty intelligence of Dumas’ quip makes me smile.

Not for the first time.

To see more images from this project, please visit the online gallery Zsuzsanna put together exclusively for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.


Africa, Europe, America is an international arts project by Creatives without Borders. Zsuzsanna Ardó has curated 55+ artists’ work, which were all created specifically for this art project. About half of the artists are from the Caribbean, with African/slavery personal narratives.

The AEA arts project was installed in the grand gallery space of the Château du Bost, for two weeks during the Boz’Art en Baz’Art international art festival in May 2015.

A steady flow of visitors journeyed through the Africa, Europe, America installation, examining the artworks and debating their meanings. Children and school groups spent hours drawing the images, figuring out artists’ styles and concepts, learning about past facts and present trends.

The journey is open-ended.

Artists are welcome to propose further triptychs for the Africa, Europe, America project.

Galleries, museums as well as alternative public spaces—be it a port or an airport, a railway or metro station, or whatever appropriate venue—are welcome to get in touch with the curator with ideas to feature the project and public engagement around it.

Zsuzsanna Ardó, the curator of this Creatives without Borders arts project, can be reached via www.ardo.org.

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