Also, this past summer I managed to squeeze in a little travel and adventure that was inspirational and educational. I made a presentation at the 2015 Collegium for African American Research (CAAR) Conference in Liverpool (United Kingdom) and toured the city. From there I rode the train to London and then on to Paris (France). Next I made a stop in Venice (Italy).
While in these cities I specifically set out to engage with the African diaspora community history in each place, and sometimes with contemporary cultural influences. I learned about the hundreds of years of this history in these European places and the multi-cultural societies that many people chose to overlook or have little awareness of.
Well placed geographically, on the Mersey River where it meets the Irish Sea, Liverpool was a world mercantile port city for global general cargo, cultural connections throughout the British Empire that also played a pivotal role in the British trans-Atlantic slave trading from 1730 onwards. Further the city was a major center for emigration from northern Europe to the United States. The waterfront area of Liverpool was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
On the Liverpool Slavery History Trail tour with Eric Scott Lynch, I joined other visitors in exploration of the district and some of the buildings where the region’s businessman made deals and prospered in the triangular trade. Textiles and ammunitions were exchanged in West Africa for humans who were then taken to the Caribbean to work in enslavement, with cotton coming back to Liverpool. This long history is visible in the iconography of faces and bodies, cotton plants, chains and whips in the relief and statuary of the still standing buildings constructed with the profits from the enslavement trade.
The huge profits of this business made Liverpool one of the UK’s most important and wealthiest cities. The racist attitudes that supported the justification of the cruel and brutal business of enslavement have left a legacy that still affects people of Liverpool in the dawning decades of the twenty-first century.
With thespian Tayo Aluko and entrepreneur/local activist Jimi Jagne, I toured the south city District 8 section known as Toxteth where for a long time most of the city’s black population (with other global marginalized people intermingled) was confined to live due to racial discrimination and prejudice. The diverse heritage of the Liverpool 8/Toxteth community was recently recognized in a multi-media exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. I was lucky enough to be in town while the exhibit was still up and able to view it this past summer.
With some of my CAAR colleagues, I hung out at Liverpool’s Cavern Club (Photograph of me at the club entrance). Considered the “cradle of British pop music,” the seventy-year-old cellar club has hosted The Beatles among other pop musicians to become one of the most famous music venues in the world. The night the bouncer at the Mathew Street club took my photograph I heard enjoyable live music by a good band that covered many Beatles songs and other musicians doing original songs. As the birthplace of The Beatles, many of the band’s fans make a pilgrimage to the city, and there are various tours available to see sites related to the famous group. I stayed at the Penny Lane Hotel at Smithdown Place and Penny Lane (also the name of a song by the group) in Liverpool’s Mossley Hill area where there are several sites that were significant to the formative years of members of The Beatles.
Moving on, I arrived in London during some of the hottest days on record in July for the UK, with temperatures hitting 98F/36.7C. The hot weather and sunny skies were not an inconvenience. On the contrary I was glad the weather was hot rather than cool or cold with cloudy skies like it is most often the case in London. And with no rain, walking and using the subway to get around the city to places I wanted to visit was pleasurable and very convenient.
While in London, a few colleagues who also attended the CAAR 2015 conference in Liverpool joined me on a Black History Walks UK tour of the St. Paul’s Cathedral and financial/bank district area with Tony Warner as our leader. Much like the tour I took in Liverpool, this tour was enlightening, as our guide shared information about how the UK’s wealth was built from African labor and resources. We learned about the hundreds of years of African presence and contribution to the city in such things as this influence in the architecture of the buildings and the symbolism in places like the coat of arms of some of the trade guilds.
Warner walked us around streets, alleyways and buildings showing use the connections between politics, religion, trade, slavery and racism which can still be viewed in the city landscape of the oldest part of London and represent the industrial wealth of the global British Empire. On this excursion I learned so much about the African presence in London that I was unaware of.
One interesting historic site we visited was The Jamaica Wine House located in St. Michael’s Alley in the medieval courts and alleys off Cornhill and Lombard Street in the heart of the financial/bank district at the site of London’s first coffee house opened in 1652. The site’s pub building is from the nineteenth century and it gained the current name in 1869. Traders in sugar and coffee and involved in the enslavement plantations of the West Indies and with Turkish goods met at the establishment to discuss business in Asia Minor and the Caribbean. In the seventeen and eighteen centuries, coffeehouses played an important role as a public social place where people would converse about commerce, politics and daily gossip while drinking coffee, tea and chocolate.
Not far from Soho’s Moor Street (see photograph), I stopped by to see a more contemporary influence on British and global culture when I went by the shop of Nigerian-born, British-educated lawyer-turned fashion designer Duro Olowu. Global ethnic-bohemian themes, and his Nigerian, Jamaican and European roots inspire his sophisticated clothing, shoe and some accessory styles with bold fabrics and other materials. Situated in the shopping streets of the Central London’s St. James/Piccadilly area, his shop is in the quaint Masons Yard, off Duke Street, down the block from the upmarket food and department store Fortnum and Mason.
Without going into much detail I will mention a few other inspiring learning and exploring experiences in London. I took a trip on The Tube (subway) to Brixton in South London to the Black Cultural Archives to view the exhibit entitled “Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s–1990s.” The exhibit showcased different social, cultural and political themes of the Black British experience that engaged the imagination of the photographers. While in the neighborhood I checked out the famous Brixton Village market, which is now a shell of its old multi-ethnic vibrancy, with the neighborhood shops changing to a different sort. I had my Jamaican food fix fulfilled with delicious savory faire at Bamboula’s Kitchen on Acre Lane.
On another day I visited the legendary Sir John Soane’s Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields near the London School of Economics. The house, museum and library site belonged to the distinguished nineteenth century architect of the same name during his lifetime. This amazing place was his living and working space, and features his collection of stuff (including furnishings, artworks, sculptures and artifacts) and his architectural design of the space. I have read about this place over the years in various books as architectural and other historians consider it a world architectural treasure.
Last but truly not least, in East London I walked around the Shoreditch, Hoxton and Brick Lane neighborhoods, which are the newest hipster digs in London. I stopped in for a tour of the library at the Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA) and chatted with representatives from Autograph ABP. Both on Rivington Place in the Shoreditch neighborhood, the organizations produce and support programming and publications that features work that has been overlooked due to the politics of race, cultural identity, representation and human rights.
Also in East London I checked out the architecturally unique, circularly planned Boundary Estate, one of the earliest public housing sites in the county built in the 1890s near Arnold Circus, and walked through the nearby old Jewish neighborhood now where many new immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia have taken up residence.
Down the street from Arnold Circus, I checked out Soboye, a fashion and lifestyle store, run by the fabulously creative designer Samson Soboye. He uses many African print fabrics mixed in with other contemporary fashionable fabrics for his collection of distinctive men’s and women’s clothing. He carries jewelry and accessories, and an array of the brightly colored plastic “Baby Deidei” dolls (iconic toy from West Africa created in the 1950s that celebrated Ghana’s Independence for the UK) among other home furnishings.
Continuing the inspirational and educational exploration in Paris I went on a tour with Ricki Stevenson’s company and reviewed it for the publication The Public Historian. Tour participants were introduced to sites related to key events in the history of the Franco-Black diaspora across multiple centuries, and to the U.S. African American experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On foot and by public transportation, our group travelled through the City of Light as our guide offered an entertaining and informative narrative about some well-known and some largely forgotten individuals associated with these sites, and about noteworthy events in the history of Black Paris. You can read my review and see my photographs here.
The last stop on my summer 2015 learning and exploration excursion was to the 56th Venice Biennale. This year the program’s lead curator was Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor and titled “All the World’s Futures.” The weather in Venice was hot every day of my stay with a few quick downpours of rain. This city is always beautiful even with really hot weather. The most interesting areas of the Biennale were the pavilions Enwezor curated at both the Arsenale and Gardini areas. In 2015, twenty five percent (25%) of the artists in the Biennale were black from all around the world; this was noted as “a significant rate of participation” when considering their representation in the past. From the United States, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, among others were African American artists participating in the exhibit program in 2015.
There were a few Venice Biennale 2015 Collateral events I enjoyed seeing, including an exhibit entitled “We Must Risk Delight: Twenty Artists From Los Angeles” presented by bardoLA in the Dorsoduro district of Venice that was a nice event to view. Also in Dorsoduro, exhibits featuring artists from Grenada and Guatemala displayed emotive surprises for engagement, and a really dynamic and diverse Graffiti exhibit at the Arterminal c/o Terminal S. Basilio. An exhibit of glass and ceramics at the Palasso Tiepolo Passi (San Marco district) was unique, and the building that housed it was beautiful and ostentation in the only way that a seventeenth century Italian palazzo could be.
Click here to view my “Accomplishments and New Life Opportunities” musings and photographs.