Oxford's Bodleian Libraries has partnered with the Museum of Colour (MoC) and Oxford-based charity Fusion Arts to curate These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday-Racism.
Contemporary artists have shared their thought-provoking responses to six artefacts from the Bodleian Libraries’ colonial collections for the exhibition, currently on display at the Weston Library.
These Things Matter explores how oppression can be normalised and invites visitors to consider ‘the ways in which our thinking has been framed by our predecessors, and present behaviour informed by past actions beyond our borders’.
Following a process of public workshops, seven artists selected by the Museum of Colour and Fusion Arts were invited to reflect on the artefacts, including maps, letters and even a version of the Bible. Each piece looks at the artefact through a 21st century lens, interpreting the items through sound, art installations and digital displays for a modern audience, and offering an illustration of the artist’s personal response to it. It conveys how it made them feel, and how they see its intended purpose and human impact.
The artists are Bunmi Ogunsiji, Grace Lee, Nilupa Yasmin, Amina Atiq, Dirty Freud, Mahdy Abo Bahat and Johannah Latchem.
The exhibition shows how items such as these artefacts maintained the British Empire and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and were edited deliberately to manipulate millions of people. The inclusion of the artefacts allows visitors to understand how they were used to dehumanise people in order to oppress them over several centuries.
These Things Matter is the brainchild of Samenua Sesher, founder of the Museum of Colour. Samenua was motivated to bring awareness to such conscious acts of manipulation when she discovered a censored version of the King James Bible commonly known as the ‘Slave Bible’. Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands was a heavily redacted version which excluded certain parts believed to incite rebellion and revolt and instead emphasised parts which served to justify slavery and encourage obedience and servitude.
The Bible is held in the Bodleian’s collections and is a key feature of the exhibition.
Samenua said: 'Museum of Colour and the Bodleian were looking at how to build on our work together on MoC’s pilot exhibition, People of Letters. So, when I learnt about the 'Slave Bible', and that the Bodleian held a copy, I realised that we had the makings of a really compelling exhibition. Reading about how it was used made me want to explore the quiet but pernicious behaviours that hold barbaric structures in place. This exhibition will highlight the less discussed but conscious emotional manipulation in items like books and maps. Our co-curative process enabled us all to see the legacies in our societies today. The ongoing manipulation which makes some people think they are better than others and convinces other people that they are less.'
These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday Racism continues until 19 February 2023. Blackwell Hall, Weston Library. Free admission.
The exhibition is also available online through the Museum of Colour.
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