Joy Labinjo’s recent exhibition at the Chapter Gallery in Cardiff reminded me of the constant debate about the effectiveness of in-gallery labels. Artists, curators and exhibition designers have long attempted to contextualise artworks and objects within this public setting. Yet the success of this endeavour is tricky to measure.
- What do museums and galleries define as successful engagement?
- How does this relate to the experience of what visitors would define as successful engagement?
- How involved are artists in creating and defining what engagement with their work means for them?
I know, these are questions that can reveal many different answers and approaches to achieving this. Since contact time with curators and artists from a visitor’s perspective is limited or not always possible, I strike up conversations with gallery and visitors’ assistants to hear their perspectives.
I mean, who better to speak with than the people who are closest to the visitors? Who has a more direct understanding of the public engagement with the artwork through their observations and conversations…
In the spirit of this blog title, here’s a bit of context about the exhibition, Ode to Olaudah Equiano. This exhibition itself focused on re-contextualising history which has typically omitted or downplayed the presence of Black people pre-20th century pictorially. As the title of the exhibition reveals, it sought to address and celebrate both well-known and less well-known Black people, historically. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Labinjo’s deeper inquiry into the legacies of colonialism led to a painting of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843–1880), a Black Edwardian.
From here, Labinjo learned about other Black figures — some unnamed — such as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797), she was introduced to his contemporaries such as:
- Writer and abolitionist Ignatius Sancho (c1729–1780)
- And poet Phyllis (or Phillis) Wheatley (1753–1784)
For Labinjo, these Black contemporaries were not adequately represented at a time where colonisation, empire and enslavement involved much discussion and documentation about the societal change between the 17th and 19th centuries. The assertion of rights, calls for abolition and strides toward freedom were being negotiated by many Black people in North America and Europe. Yet, much history and artwork during this period focused on the experiences of white abolitionists as the main narrative to draw from. Which is an unfortunate legacy which continues today. Labinjo’s exhibition attempts to highlight these Black people, pictorially. But also to question, what we know about the visual and biographical histories of these figures.
Instead of wall text interpretation, Labinjo opted for a handout written by Orlando Reade. This text provides a starting point to the layered history each of these artworks posses. However, the option to accept or refuse this text brings into question how much context was gained or lost by visitors? The artistic depictions of Equiano and Sancho may be more visibly recognisable to some visitors. As I think back to my education about abolition, I did not encounter a visual representation of Wheatley until I was at uni. And Labinjo’s painting of Anne Osborne (Sancho’s wife) was my first introduction to Osborne, as a person.
Yet, unsurprisingly there is very little information about her or her life available outside of her relation to Sancho as his wife. Currently, this is the only information I could find about Osbourne across many websites using the ctrl-f function in sources like this. This lack of information reminds me of the role historians have to play in choosing which stories to focus on and prioritise over others. For me, more attention needs to be paid to Black women with agency in their own right, instead of restricting their role to a wife or mother as a single sentence reference.
While chatting with one of the gallery assistants at the Chapter Gallery, they explained how this image below of Equiano is a more true depiction of him despite the constant use of this more recognisable image (as seen with Equiano wearing a red coat). This coupled with theories about the validity of Equiano’s place of birth and account of the middle passage challenges us to be critical about what knowledge we draw from — particularly dominant narratives that are often just accepted as ‘objective’ truths.
Reade expands on this further in the accompanying exhibition text:
‘The anonymity of the man in the red jacket remains disturbing. Online, he is often still identified as Equiano, as well as several other West African writers living in England in this period, including Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Ottobah Cugoano’ (Reade, 2022).
As someone who studied history at uni, this says a lot about the lack of representation within the education of enslavement. And why there are calls to readdress these narrow views about the history of enslavement, empire and colonialism. The inclusion of artwork and written texts by Black people is one form of contributing to building more understanding of the past. historians and scholars need to become more comfortable critiquing and challenging long-standing narratives, as another way to better understand the past. However, such efforts to provide a more holistic and wider view of history are too often assigned as ‘woke’. And thus missing the opportunity to engage with critical thinking to challenge how and why we have been taught history in certain and often unhelpful ways.
While it is ultimately up to the visitor to decide how they wish to engage with artworks, objects and histories the Chapter Gallery facilitated engagement in the following ways:
- Reade’s text is available as a pdf document on the website which can be accessed here.
- There is an exhibition audio description narrated by Uzo Iwobi (in English) and Kathryn Ashill (in Cymraeg / Welsh).
- There are photos of the entire exhibition online, allowing visitors to view Labinjo’s artworks now the exhibition has closed