Museums and Memory 1: Shane D’Allessandro’s ‘Contributions’ at the International Slavery Museum

We have been working on Whose History? for a year now – our first recce of the university’s South Campus was in late August 2020. Since then, as we’ve developed the project and found our focus in the four films we’ll be releasing next month, we’ve maintained our broader view on questions of how we access, experience, and interpret history.

In the first of three posts this week, we consider these questions by highlighting items in three of Liverpool’s great museums, which resonate with ideas and issues we’ve been seeking to explore. We begin, today, with the International Slavery Museum on Albert Dock, and a work called ‘Contributions’ by the artist Shane D’Allessandro.

In ‘Hey Joe’, Joe tells us:

You know they say, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’? I’ve done this before, right: I always draw all the straight lines in a black felt-tip pen on the Union flag, so there is black in the Union flag.

‘Hey Joe’

Joe is referencing the racist chant sung by England football fans in the 1970s and 1980s; in the film he goes on to talk about the experience of racism at football matches and his own strategies of resistance. His creative and assertive rejection of that racist taunt resonates with Paul Gilroy’s landmark work There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Politics of Race and Nation (1987), which examined the dynamics between race, class, and nation, and attitudes to racism in 1980s Britain, with unstinting clarity. The lasting impact and significance of Gilroy’s book is valuably discussed here by the sociologist Les Back.

More recently, the artist Shane D’Allessandro has also reclaimed the phrase, for his work ‘Contributions’ (2020), currently on display in the ‘Challenging Histories: Collecting New Artworks‘ section of the International Slavery Museum, which showcases contemporary artworks which engage with the history and legacy of transatlantic slavery. The painting is a tribute to the Windrush generation. Taking the lines of the Union Jack, D’Allessandro offers the UK flag anew, so that its form now incorporates the flags of eleven Caribbean nations: Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

This act of artistic reclamation and restitution was made against the background of the appalling betrayal and maltreatment of many members of the Windrush generation and their families by the British government which came to light in 2018. As the accompanying gallery text states, the painting “represents the vast contribution of many Caribbean nations and their enormous value to Britain. Portrayed in this manner, that contribution cannot be overlooked, forgotten or misremembered, and enables us to feel seen, valued and represented in British society.”

Shane D’Allessandro, ‘Contributions’ (2020), photographed on display at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

You can read more about Shane D’Allessandro’s work here.

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