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.

On Re-reading Alfred Gell’s Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps

As a result of selecting this as the main first week reading for our MA paper on the Arts of Africa, I have read this paper three times in the last two years. Every time I return to it, I find more there. Over the past twenty years, Gell has largely been associated, at least in student essays, with the reductive notion that ‘objects have agency’, largely due to the title of his posthumously published book Art and Agency (1998). But his writing is lively, complex and multi-layered – it always feels like he is trying to say about five things in any one paper – but the fresh and engaging style with which he writes always carries me along as a willing and enthusiastic reader. 

A Cambridge trained anthropologist who worked largely at LSE, Gell did his initial fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, subsequently also working in India. During his career he wrote about ritual, time and exchange, publishing books in the early 1990s on The Anthropology of Time (Gell, 1992a) and Tattooing in Polynesia (Gell, 1993). However, Alfred Gell really established himself as a key theorist on the anthropology of art during the 1990s with essays such as The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology(Gell, 1992b). Not content to limit himself to generating localised ethnographies, Gell remained wedded to an anthropological enterprise that involved developing categories and forms of analysis that were applicable across cultural contexts.

This essay, published in the very first issue of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996, may be one of the last things Gell published before his premature death in January 1997. According to its abstract, it ‘explores the basis of the distinction commonly made between works of art or art objects and ‘mere’ artefacts, which are useful but not aesthetically interesting or beautiful’ (Gell, 1996, 15). This is Gellian modesty. By substituting one letter, that description becomes much more accurate – it explodes the basis of this distinction.

Replica of a Zande hunting net, rolled and bound for transport as displayed in the exhibition Art/artifact at theCenter of African Art, New York 1988 by Mariana Castillo Deball, 2013:

The main target of the paper is an essay by Arthur Danto (1988) in the catalogue for Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition at the Centre of African Art in New York, ART/ARTIFACT. It is worth noting Gell’s generosity in calling it a masterly essay. Nevertheless, one senses that he has real problems, both with Danto’s argument and his way of making it. Danto wants to argue that the Zande hunting next exhibited by Vogel is not a work of art, suggesting that it falls outside a tradition of conceptual art embedded in a system of ideas and interpretation that has developed in the (western) art-historical tradition. Gell points out that this conception is essentially Hegelian (relying on a notion of art motivated by transhistorical Geist), but also that Danto is not consistent in wanting to retain the great works of African sculpture ‘discovered’ by the modernists in the early twentieth century, while rejecting Vogel’s net. In order to make this argument, Danto relies on a rather absurd philosophical thought experiment contrasting ‘pot people’ and ‘basket people’, who produce identical objects but invest cosmological significance in one rather than the other of these two artefacts. Had he engaged with the ethnographic literature, Gell suggests, Danto would have encountered conceptual worlds far more sophisticated and interesting than he was able imagine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst:

Mid-way through the essay, Gell shifts tack, developing a demonstration of how he would approach this problem in the form of a virtual exhibition, consisting of a series of of traps, alongside examples of contemporary art such as Damien Hirst’s shark (introduced through one of Gell’s sketches) and Duchamp’s Trebuchet, to draw out the significance and meaning from each other, demonstrating that traps can’t be straightforwardly dismissed as functional artefacts. This concentration on traps is very deliberate – they are he suggests ‘a master metaphor of deep significance’, ‘a representation of human being-in-the world’ and ‘a working model of a person’ that also embody the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

The trap for Gell represents a materialised nexus of intentionalities, and as such is an exemplary kind of art object. He suggests that every work of art works like ‘a trap or snare that impedes passage’, and that art galleries are ‘a place of capture’ set with ‘“thought-traps” which hold their victims for a time, in suspension’ (Gell, 1996, 37). Most exemplary of all is Pierre Lemonnier’s Anga eel trap -which through the eels they actually catch form images of living ancestral power ‘that actually accomplish work, actually nourish those who make them, and so achieve a goal that has always eluded our artists, waylaid as they have been by the need for realistic representation of (surface) forms’ (Gell, 1996, 34).

When you reach the conclusion, it becomes clear that Gell’s paper is not simply an exposition of Vogel’s net, a refutation of Danto’s arguments about it, or even an imaginative thought exhibition, but is fundamentally an argument against ‘the continuing hold of the “aesthetic” notion of artworks over the anthropological mind’ (Gell, 1996, 35). Gell suggests that this ‘reactionary… middle brow’ definition of art has ‘little or noting to do with the kinds of objects (installation, performances) that are characteristically circulated as ‘art’ in the late 20th century’ (Gell, 1996, 35). For Gell , ‘the “anthropology of art” ought to be about… the provision of a critical context that would enfranchise “artefacts” and allow for their circulation as artworks, displaying them as embodiments or residues of complex intentionalities’ (1996, 37). 

It would be wonderful to be able to report that in the decade and a half since I used Gell’s argument about artworks as traps as the basis of a pitch for my first curatorial job at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, that this project of artifactual enfranchisement had been successfully accomplished. There have definitely been plenty of examples of art museums incorporating and displaying collections of artefacts previously known as ‘ethnography’. But the thought that keeps arising when I reflect on this, is that museums and art galleries are themselves massive traps, capable of capturing and redirecting curatorial intentionalities along their own complex webs of ancestral intentionality. If the Anga eel trap is an image of ancestral eel power that actually accomplishes work, is the museum or gallery not an even more powerful living image of institutionalised ancestral power?


DANTO, A. 1988. Artifact and Art. ART/ARTIFACT: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York: Center for African Art and Prestel Verlag.

GELL, A. 1992a. The anthropology of time : cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford, Berg.

GELL, A. 1992b. The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology. In: COOTE, J. & SHELTON, A. (eds.) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 15-38.

GELL, A. 1998. Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press.Art