Cambridge and the Black Atlantic

I have recently been reflecting on a decade lived back in Cambridge, following a decade in Birmingham between 2003 and 2013. While Birmingham’s world famous Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was closed the year before I arrived, the ideas and approaches it developed were still very much in the air, subtly permeating the city’s cultural institutions.

Moving the Vibes sound system with its architect and builder Mervyn Pinnock, BMAG technician, 2005

In 2005, I worked on the Vibes project at Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, exploring musical connections between West Africa, the West Indies and the UK’s West Midlands – a response to ideas developed by one of the centre’s most eminent former students, Paul Gilroy. His 1993 book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, has since become a classic, inspiring a huge amount of work by other people in the three decades since it was published.

On returning to Cambridge from Birmingham (I lived here from the age of 8 to 18), it was at times challenging to adapt to a place that was on the surface very familiar, but which nevertheless embodied sets of assumed values and knowledges that could feel quite alien. I actually think the walled colleges with their patrolled gatehouses are an extremely effective architecture of alienation – reminders for most people of their exclusion, but equally of potential exclusion even for those who gain temporary admittance.

When I left my job at the University of Cambridge in 2018, I often spent the drive to Norwich listening to Over the Bridge, a podcast set up by a group of former Cambridge students of mostly African descent. Listening to them discussing their experiences of the city helped me process my own, and in the process gain a perspective on Cambridge that recognised its sometimes overwhelming ‘w/Whiteness’.

In reviewing the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current exhibition, Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance, I was struck by the ways it continued to embody ‘w/Whiteness’, despite ostensibly shifting its focus to Black Atlantic lives. My review will be published in the Journal of Museum Ethnography only after the exhibition has closed, so I have decided to make it available here:

Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance
8 September 2023 – 7 January 2024
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Entering the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Black Atlantic exhibition, one is confronted by a pair of 18th century portraits. One depicts an unnamed man of African descent, the other Richard Fitzwilliam who, on his death in 1816 left the University of Cambridge a collection that formed the basis of the museum that still carries his name, as well as £100,000 that was at least partly derived from profits in the trade in enslaved people. 

An adjacent text panel asks ‘Who gets remembered and why?’, remarking on the first portrait’s unknown sitter ‘the fact that after decades of research his identity still remains unknown highlights the ways the dominant culture in Britain has failed to record Black sitters’ identities and histories.’ In borrowing its title from, what after thirty years of continuous relevance must be acknowledged as Paul Gilroy’s 1993 masterpiece, the exhibition announces a shift in focus onto previously unnamed and unseen people of African descent.

The Fitwilliam Museum’s main portico with exhibition banners featuring Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point 29 (Duyster)

Banners hanging from lampposts across Cambridge as well as the museum’s impressive neo-Classical portico feature Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point 29 (Duyster) in which, according to an introduction to the exhibition catalogue by the museum’s Director, Luke Syson, ‘a Black man, tenderly, exquisitely drawn in graphite, now has a prominence in contrast to the embossed white figures who almost disappear before our eyes.’

One can certainly read Walker’s image as directing our attention to the central graphite figure, but in a curious figure-ground reversal, I couldn’t help but see the image as a portrait of w/Whiteness itself, ‘the dominant culture’ which remains an elusive entity that almost disappears before our eyes. The three works by Walker in the exhibition are suggestive of what Gilroy called ‘the dislocating dazzle of “whiteness”’, in which racial minorities are made to see themselves as others see them, a condition defined by W.E.B. Dubois in 1903 as ‘double consciousness’ and adopted by Gilroy to be paired with ‘modernity’ in the subtitle of his book. 

A useful guide to the exhibition labels tells us that ‘To call attention to historic and ongoing racialised inequalities, the collective terms ‘Black’ and ‘Indigenous’ are capitalised throughout while “white” is not.’ I can’t help feeling that this form of what linguists would call ‘markedness’ enables ’w/Whiteness’ to remain unremarked upon, almost invisible and therefore dominant and dominating, a criticism one could certainly level at the exhibition, but also at the Fitzwilliam as an institution and Cambridge as a city.

The exhibition’s introductory panel tells us that stories ‘help us distinguish fact from fiction and history from myth’but these genres frequently bleed into one another in ways that can be hard to disentangle. Indeed, the version of Atlantic history presented here felt rather closer to myth, a familiar and regularly repeated blending of past and present that can be put to work as a charter for renewed action.

The exhibition provides an extremely valuable opportunity to look closely at loaned works such as Dirk Valkenburg’s painting of party on a plantation in Surinam, one of the only images to provide a glimpse of the centrality of music within Black Atlantic lives, at least in Gilroy’s account of them. What rescued this exhibition from feeling like another slightly tired rendition of a jazz standard, however, was the space it made for contemporary works by artists of African descent.

Alexis Peskine’s (2020) Ifá, with which the exhibition ends

Barbara Walker’s pieces provided an energising chorus that returned throughout the show, augmented by solos from Keith Piper, Donald Locke, and the powerful portrait by Alexis Peskine, mirroring words and image, that ends the exhibition. While these works by male artists from the 1970s, 1980s and the 2020s confront the brutalisations of Black masculinity, they retain an understandably violent edge, also evoked in the blood red edging of the exhibition labels. 

Recent works by Barbara Walker, Sokari Douglas Camp, Alberta Whittle and Jacqueline Bishop spoke to Atlantic histories with a different voice. For me, it was Jacqueline Bishop’s 2021 History at the Dinner Table –a set of 18 dinner plates decorated with historic images of women from the Black Atlantic – together with a video piece produced for the exhibition, that spoke most powerfully to the challenges of our contemporary moment, as well as the possibilities of repair that can be glimpsed in an exhibition like this. 

One of the plates from Jacqueline Bishop’s (2021) History at the Dinner Table, featuring the image of a woman originally engraved by William Blake for John Gabriel Stedman’s (1796) Narrative of five years expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam

Bishop suggests in the video, available on YouTube, that she found that the way to dialogue with Black women’s histories and voices was through the decorative and the domestic. While her plates feature extremely violent images of persecution, Bishop speaks of her desire to give these women back their modesty, their humanity, their beauty, their vulnerability and all the human feelings they were denied by slavery. She also outlines her aspirations for the exhibition and her work within it:

When people come to the exhibition and when they look at these plates on display, if I could wave a magic wand and get what I want, I want them to leave with a heightened sense of, of course the enslaved, particularly enslaved women and some of the difficulties, savagery they had to deal with in their lives, but I also, implicit in this, I want them to leave with a sense of mutuality and mutual endeavour…

If Dr Victoria Avery and I can find the means to have these difficult conversations, her as a white British woman and myself as a Black Jamaican and American women, it is possible.

Final video featuring Victoria Avery and Jacqueline Bishop

Here, even if only briefly, w/Whiteness is named and identified, emerging from its shifting trans-oceanic currents as something to be charted. The final frame of the video brings together the smiling faces of Jacqueline Bishop and Victoria Avery, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Keeper of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts who worked on the show, echoing the pair of male portraits with which the exhibition begins. It was in this electronic moving image, rather than the singular self-portrait by Alexis Piscine, that I began to make out possibilities for alternative Atlantic futures.