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Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Rewriting the history of slave trade

Name: Jacob, Place of birth: Cochin, Age: 18, Sex: M, Seller: Jan Kakkelaan, Buyer: Pierre Simond, Price: Rs 80, Sold at: Cochin town, 8.4.1694.

The sparse words on a T-shirt hung out to dry in Fort Kochi is an artist’s retelling of the slave trade, a story stretching across the seas from the shores of the Arabian Sea all the way to South Africa. The installation, One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale, by Sue Williamson at the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale is the South African artist’s attempt to recover the “vague” history of slave trade.

“It is trying to put a face or name to the history which is largely vague in people’s minds — the slave trade. We know people were taken from one country to another but we don’t think about it much,” Williamson told media.

The work was an outcome of her visit to Kochi in 2017 when she was struck by the similarities in the colonial histories of Kochi and her homeland Cape Town. Following her return to South Africa, she began research on the identities of the thousands of men who were picked up from the shores of Kerala by the Dutch East India Company.

The artist discovered transaction records, dating back to the 17th century and giving an account of the enslavement of Indians who were taken to Africa to work in the company’s estates and gardens, from the Cape Town Deeds Office.

To execute the idea, Williamson sourced shirts traditionally worn by the working class in India and hand wrote on them details such as the name given to them by their master, gender, age and place of birth. She then ceremoniously dipped the T-shirts in the muddy water around the Cape Town Castle, a site of enslavement, to symbolise the oppression and hard labour they endured.

During the course of the Biennale, the garments are periodically washed at a public laundry frequented by Dutch officers in the colonial era and hung out to dry at the Aspinwall House, thereby offering the slaves a posthumous return home.

“It is like an act of memorialisation,” the artist said.

Williamson, who is known for creating works that shed light on the forgotten or neglected histories, has brought another work to the Biennale — “Messages from the Atlantic Passage”.

The large-scale installation features suspended rope fishing nets filled with hand-engraved glass bottles that, like her other work, bear the names, countries of origin, ships, owners, and prices of the millions of Africans who were shipped to the New World — the Americas between 1525 and 1866.

The nets hang over pools, symbolic of the ships that carried these men. The installation shows chains of linked bottles falling into these pools representing the slaves who failed to survive the trans-Atlantic voyage.

While Williamson started off her research by looking into “all kinds of documents”, she said the job became easier once she discovered “an enormous database” of the slave trade across the Atlantic put together by two universities in the UK and the US.

“There were nearly 2,000 voyages and I have just shown five,” she said.

Williamson’s installations are among the many thought provoking works that the Biennale themed Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life this year has on offer. Curated by artist Anita Dubey, the art event is scheduled to continue till March 29.

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