Last year, something special happened across London and other UK cities that dared us to reimagine the world. Through the eyes and vision of artists – mostly artists of colour - a stunning series of giant painted globes came into being. It sheds light on the impact of colonialism in every aspect of our daily lives, promoting deep awareness and the need to inform ourselves of the past to enact change in the present – towards a world where racial justice is a reality. Towards a decolonial future.
Walking around the London trails last year, I learnt so much. Each globe brought into sharp relief issues that have remained untold, supressed, or even erased from history books and from our collective (whitewashed) memory, issues we have a duty to unearth and make visible to all so we can create opportunities for collective learning - and unlearning.
The World Reimagined highlights the horrendous impact, brutality and cost of colonialism, as well as - and importantly - the courage and ingenuity of enslaved people in resisting it, rebelling against it and playing a pivotal role changing it, not least in abolishing slavery itself. Many of the stories depicted on the globes have stayed with me on my own journey to educating myself about the abomination that is white supremacy.
Fiona Compton's Palace of the Peacock draws attention to enslaved women’s botanical knowledge. They used the poison of the beautiful, brightly coloured peacock flower, and other plants, to kill their ‘masters’ or as an abortifacient. This globe honours the brave women who risked their lives in selfless acts of resistance.
Andrea Cumming’s cornrow inspired globe Rise Up draws on the role of hair in Black history. While the heads of many enslaved people were shaved, it didn’t stop some from adopting cornrows as an act of rebellion – and as a way of communicating with others about escape routes, designing patterns shaped like maps in their hair.
Fury and Fire by Fiona Compton and Hailey Gonzales depicts the struggle for freedom in St Lucia, where the N èg Mawon – enslaved men and women who had run away – formed a united community to fight and defeat the British army by setting the island on fire. Their motto: "Liberté ou La Mort" - freedom or death.
It is a real testimony to The World Reimagined’s appeal, brilliance, and success that some of the globes are back in London - this time in Greenwich, an area of London closely associated with empire … starting with Greenwich Mean Time. GMT dictates western dominated notion of time by setting itself as the ‘standard’ by which we calculate time!
I remember visiting Greenwich when I first arrived in London, and putting one foot on each side, imagining the meridians on an old school globe in my head ... and thinking ‘how fcking arbitrary!’ – because these really are like lines in the sand and there are so many different ways of understanding what ‘time’ even is.
In Britain’s case, it wasn’t just about time. The chronometer was used to determine longitude at sea and became a pivotal tool to dominate land across the world. It is therefore rather poignant that the globes – 36 of them – are now occupying space at the National Maritime Museum, an area, with Docklands (just across the river), that was at the centre of empire … making Yinka Shonibare CBE’s The World Reimagined map, which reflects historical trade routes and intercontinental power relations, particularly salient. It shows the triangular routes used in the trade of enslaved African people, changing their names to those of African cultural practitioners and pioneers, historical and contemporary to reverse the phenomenon of so-called Western Enlightenment.
Shonibare is also the artist whose Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle adorned the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square (2010) and is now in the National Maritime Museum’s permanent collection.
Below are some of the other globes on display in Greenwich - until 25th June 2023:
In Celebrating Toussaint, Deanna Tyson depicts the extraordinary spirit of Toussain L’Ouverture – a formerly enslaved man who fought against France, with France, embraced the ideals of the French revolution ‘Liberty and Equality’, became a general and led the first successful rebellion of enslaved people (1791 – 1804) against their colonial rulers, achieving Haitian independence in the process. The story was famously picked up by Trinidadian historian CLR James in The Black Jacobins (1938).
Glen Brooks and Jane Mota’s Bought, Sold and Gold giant cotton ball lays bare the hardship of daily cotton harvest. From 1800 to 1860 enslaved African Americans harvested 2 billion pounds of cotton – almost all of the 80% exported to Europe went to Britain and was instrumental in fuelling the industrial revolution. And while in the UK (and elsewhere in the so called ‘West’), many still choose to remain ignorant about - or even refute! - the undeniable links between empire, the trade in and forced labour and exploitation of enslaved people and capitalism, Black scholars have long joined the dots – not least Eric Williams in his seminal Capitalism and Slavery (1938) - a book no-one in the UK wanted to publish - until 1964. Williams became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962.
Kione Grandison’s Let us not Forget further exposes the plunder of Africa’s wealth, the forced displacement and enslavement of generations of African people. The globe is adorned of three portraits - one them shows Matilda Mcrear, the last know survivor from a ship transporting enslaved people. She died in 1940, at the age of 83, having received ZERO reparations. Meanwhile, as part of a ‘compromise’ to secure abolition in 1835, the British government decided to compensate enslavers, borrowing £20 million in the process - the largest loan in history. The cost fell squarely on the shoulders of British taxpayers who only finished paying off the debt in 2015!
In The Road to Freedom, Hidden in Plain Sight, Àsikò Okelarin pays tribute to Black abolitionists whose pivotal role in abolishing slavery is often understated or completely overlooked, as most people prefer a white saviour perspective. But it was people like Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano who were able to shift the narrative through telling their personal stories, sharing their experiences and using their voice to lobby Parliament and campaign for abolition.
All three have commemorative plaques in London:
Mary Prince: Senate House, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, WC1E 7HU
Olaudah Equiano: 67-73 Riding House Street, Fitzrovia, W1W 7EJ
Ottobah Cugoano: Schomberg House, Pall Mall, SW1Y 5ES
We live at a time of heightened anti-immigration and racist political and media discourse, so let us not forget the endless contributions that people of colour, people who came from colonised lands, have made and continue to make to the UK society – both individually and collectively - not least the Caribbean community who came to rebuild the country after World War II. 22 June 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, solemnly captured by Kim Thomson in Windrush 1948.
Alison Turner’s mosaic globe At the Hands of the Enslaved, our Society was Build is a particularly powerful piece, depicting society physically held in the hands of an enslaved person, built on their sacrifice and suffering.
Shannon Bono's Women of Westminster pays homage to two incredible women who dedicated their lives to the service of others. Mary Seacole nurse and healer, who headed to the Crimean battlefield to treat injured soldiers, then fell into obscurity until 2004, when she was voted into first place in an online poll for ‘Great Black Britons’. Mary Seacole reclaimed her place in history and finally her statue was unveiled in 2016 – the first of a Black woman in the UK. Amy Ashwood Garvey, prominent Pan-African, leading figure in the Windrush generation, and tireless feminist activist, who established the Afro-Women’s Centre in London.
Amy Ashwood Garvey has a plaque at 1 Basset Road, Ladbroke Grove, W10 6LA
Mary Seacole has a plaque 14 Soho Square, W1D 3QG and a statue at St Thomas’s Hospital, SE1 7GA
And let us finish this whistlestop tour of The World Reimagined with a celebration, circling back to Mother Africa, through the concept of ‘The Divine Feminine’ represented so eloquently in Jay Percy’s The Three Mothers. This globe portrays three most famous Orisha (Yoruba gods and goddesses) of the Pantheon, which the artist describes as follows:
Yemaya (Mother of Oceans) represents the older Mother. She is gentle and nurturing, and like many Divine Feminine figures is also full of power, exerting her rage when necessary. She represents the ‘new world’, where African diasporic women have had to learn to be both nurturer and protector.
Osun represents the young Mother, full of energy, naivete, sweetness and softness. She represents the old world, before many of our ancestors were taken. Sweet innocence and true connection with nature.
Oya bridges the two, representing the middle passage. Oya is a Warrior Goddess. Our ancestors had to be strong in the middle passage – Maroons, renegades, warriors.
All three energies represent Mother Africa. African diasporic women such as I have had to tap into these energies throughout our lives to survive in this world.
Enjoy your visit.
National Maritime Museum is open daily from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and the exhibition is is free to visit. You can either get there by train to Greenwich Station, Cutty Sark DLR or Maze Hill Station, as well as by boat to Greenwich Pier. Details about facilities and access.