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Visual arts: Am I not a woman and a sister, by Elizabeth Kwant

11 February 2020

Jonathan Evens sees a film installation at the Slavery Museum in Liverpool

© elizabeth kwant 2019

COTTON twine twisted around a bobbin or uncoiled. Twine tangled and entangling bodies making synchronised movements. A swath of white material wrapped round a body and extended as a train across the floor. The material slowly and neatly gathered up and folded into a lap. Dancers gesture in slow, systematic, ritualistic movements, each wearing blank impassive masks.

Elizabeth Kwant’s four-channel film installation for the International Slavery Museum sees the soft, fluffy fibre that was central to the growth of the slave trade handled, coiled, uncoiled,and twined by female survivors of modern slavery. With this film, Kwant worked in partnership with the Liverpool charity City Hearts to co-create a contemporary response to the Transatlantic slave trade, together with survivors of modern slavery.

Kwant is a Manchester-based artist, whose work has been shown previously at Manchester Cathedral and St Ann’s, Manchester, as part of the PassionArt initiative. Her work engages with contemporary socio-political issues — immigration detention, migration, gender, and slavery — through her multi-disciplinary practice. Her socially engaged arts projects have often been with refugees and asylum-seekers in partnership with organisations such as the Boaz Trust and City Hearts. This installation derives from “Surveying the Land: Legacies of Slavery” (2019-20), a practice-based research project that was awarded Arts Council funding in partnership with the International Slavery Museum.

An earlier work, In-Transit, in which she embodied and retold migrants’ stories through site-specific performances staged across the Mediterranean, initiated an interest in the therapeutic benefits of theatre for survivors of trauma. For In-Transit, she reinterpreted, through movement, various migrants’ stories, having first spent time listening to accounts from refugees and asylum-seekers and asking them to re-enact their journeys through movement.

© elizabeth kwant 2019© elizabeth kwant 2019

In devising this installation, she initiated a series of movement workshops, in collaboration with the British Barbadian choreographer Magdalen Bartlett Luambia, which gave female survivors of modern slavery the tools and agency to create their own performances. The group began each session in discussion exploring words such as “oppression” and “oppressor”. Stories of their journeys might be told: the experience of having been trafficked from their own country by lorry across various countries within Europe, working along the way. The group responded to these words and stories by creating their own movements.

These embodied performances were filmed, first in a studio and then on location at Harewood House, built for the wealthy plantation- and slave-owner Edwin Lascelles. Performing within the State Rooms of the House — beneath the quintessential 18th- century Robert Adam ceilings and among the Chippendale furniture purchased with the proceeds of colonial slavery — brought the realities and emotions of slavery into a place of luxury built on the injustices and inequities of that same experience.

Through objects (statuary at Harewood House, spools of cotton, power looms), actions (winding, unwinding, binding, folding), sound (a specially commissioned soundtrack), and repetitive movements (hold, turn, travel, block, push), the film reflects on colonial slavery and its ongoing legacy in modern Britain, raising questions of colonial history and human trafficking today.

The installation, located in the heart of the museum in a circular space, encloses and surrounds the viewer with the four-channel film ringing round. In this way, the viewer is confronted by the emotions and issues of those who are rarely seen and heard. This is an experience of being with those on the edge, an opportunity to see those who have been commodified and traded as they really are, women and sisters. Kwant’s work opens up a space in which empowerment occurs, hidden experiences are brought to light, and wider narratives (concerning the construction of identity and the recording of history) are brought into question.


Am I not a woman and a sister is at the International Slavery Museum, Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool, until 15 February. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/international-slavery-museum

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