Monday, 17 June 2013

"Clave" by Alex da Silva | Slave Monument in Rotterdam Harbour

Photo by Max Dereta

So much have been happening it is hard to know where to start. Angolan artists in Venice or the lack of the Kenyans? The South Africans in Basel or Alex da Silva in Rotterdam and his unveiling of his beautiful work on slavery for Rotterdam Harbour at the Lloyd Pier. This is a location of Media tycoons who like to inhabit trendy loft apartments in the converted Wharf. The location is exculsive and the ideal spot to have a Slavery Monument. Surprisingly, the house prices have risen since the opening, that must be a first in Europe. The people from Surinam and Cape Verde have, for quite some time, campaigned for a National Slave Day and July 1st is to become the Dutch National Day for Slavery and a Nationwide holiday.

On July 1st 1863, exactly 150 years ago, all slaves in Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles were finally granted their freedom, this was 30 years after the British abolished the trade and the Netherlands eventually found their moral compass and followed suit; today, over 80,000 descendents from the Colonial Dutch Caribbean live in the city of Rotterdam, some are the direct descendants, others are related to the contracted workers who replaced the slaves after abolition. Other ethnic groups directly affected by slavery are those originally from the Cape Verdean Islands, off the West Coast of Africa and Rotterdam houses around 23,000 Cape Verdeans, one of which is the artist, Alex de Silva. Over the past year or so, the artist has been in regular contact, feeding in various snippets of news about the project; the on-going struggles of working to tight deadlines with the constant pressure of time and finding the right artisans and craftsmen to construct a monument on this scale and whether or not the different elements would weld together perfectly. What became obvious overtime was Alex’s overriding issue and concern of paying significant homage to the slaves of the past. It has been an honour that Alex has been generous enough to have kept me so up-to-date at all the different stages of his project. With the introduction of his first child, his daughter and the new role of fatherhood, these past two years have seen great personal change in the artist.  This new assignment for his adopted City of Rotterdam is the perfect time to acknowledge his responsibility as an International Artist but also to recognize the importance of the age of slavery and what it means to the black communities around the world. There is a general feeling that the wind has been taken from the sails of those slave-ships. The history stolen and almost rewritten - the evidence must bare the test of time and the black communities must be empowered to record the history correctly. 

Initially, Alex had tried to explain his vision for his commissioned civic statue but it is only now in the latter stages of the project I begin to comprehend the sheer scale of the project and start to understand the seriousness of his undertaking. Made out of a series of welded bright polished steel hand beaten panels, the work stands at 9m high and 5m wide. The work depicts the coming of age for slavery. The beautiful sculptured stainless steel figures look alien in the Rotterdam skyline and the abstract minimal ship blends perfectly with the surrounding architecture. At certain angles the structure becomes almost as abstract as Serra. The work is entitle "Clave", which is a music note used in many Central and South American music. The Clave is central to the Caribbean beat and features in the Salsa, Rumba, Latin Jazz and is the cornerstone of Cuban music in Afro Cuban rhythm. The work reads as much as a dance as it does a sculpture and hits all the right notes, as the figures are so perfectly moulded together and shine majestically in the Rotterdam skyline. Alex de Silva is the ideal choice and certainly the only artist in Rotterdam that could have produced such a majestic and thought provoking monument. The subject matter is truly heartfelt. The effects of slavery are so evident in his country of Cape Verde as it was an important place for the Portuguese to trade African slaves with their European partners. Alex de Silva, himself is Creole, a derivative of the verb criar ("to raise"), which was coined in the 15th century, in the trading and military outposts of Cape Verde; it originally referred to descendants of the Portuguese settlers who were born and "raised" locally. The word then spread to other languages adopted from Portuguese slave traders who supplied most of the slaves to South America throughout the 16th century, so he is the ideal artist for this project.

Slavery is a word that can often be simply thrown away or discarded in some way but in reality this barbaric trade in human life is far more serious than the Jewish Holocaust. The western world needs to snap out of its complacency and mark this horrific inhumanity to its fellowmen and women. To create a monument is a good start but this repugnant trade in human life warrants more magnitude in order to appease those that have been directly or in-directly affected and reflect on those that have gained. Personally, I believe that slavery is a subject that should always remain an open-sore and the best the world can do is to ensure it rarely becomes infected. Alex’s grand project is so spectacular and thankfully has been erected in the perfect location, at the mouth of the estuary leading into Rotterdam harbour. The work acts a beacon for all ships coming into Rotterdam, which is the largest port in Europe being part of the Nieuwe Mass (New Meuse), a channel in the delta formed by the Rhine and Meuse with flows out to the North Sea on one side and into the rivers lead directly into the heart of Europe on the other. These rivers include the industrial Ruhr region. Alex’s work will stand alongside the great work of Russian sculptor, Ossip Zadkine - De Verwoeste Stad “Destroyed City” a statue depicting the horror of the Nazi bombing in 1940, created in 1953. Ossip Zadkine, lived in Paris and was a great influence on the late Senegalese painter, Iba N’Daiye from St. Louis, Senegal but he later moved to Paris with his wife Francine. There are many similarities in Alex’s paintings that seem to note a hint of the African Master, Iba N’Diaye, and their lives slighted echo each other having the duality of the West African mix and European influence and training. Alex studied at the Williem de Kooning Academy of Art and Architecture in Rotterdam in 1999 and a then went to do a  Post graduate in 2000 at Minerva Academy, Groningen in the Netherlands. His new work now becomes as much a part of the cityscape as other world famous artists such as Rodin, Willem de Kooning and the fantastic architect, Rem Koolhaas and his iconic landmarks, which have shaped the modern landscape of Rotterdam.

Of recent times there have been calls for Slavery Museums to be designed and constructed in every major port around the world. In August 2007 saw the doors open to the Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. Slavery Museum By early 2010 Liverpool saw its 1 millionth visitor. The success of this Museum has filtered over the Atlantic to America and considerations and plans are being made of building more monuments to honour the Slaves and start to document the rise of the African throughout the world. It is seen by many that the African Slave built the Modern World. Today maybe a time for real payback as each country involved with the Slave Trade should seriously consider investing and readdressing the issues of slavery. What would be ideal is to witness a real commitment within the private and public purses and funds pouring into the construction of Slave Museums. This will have the positive effect of engaging the black communities throughout the world to participate and be a part of the mapping of a brand new World. This would not only encourage engagement but lead to some genuine access to power, which before now, has been internationally denied. It would also promote a sense of ownership of a specific history but most importantly, it would go some way of creating a fairer global society. Black History should not last for just one month but be more of an annual event, lasting 365 days in the year. By building these Museums they will essentially start to address and engage the young and the restless. The Museums should be places where all the members of the world would want to come as they are dedicated to the rise of the African. Government and private enterprises should make it their civic duty to encourage their students or employees to visit the Museums on a regular basis. Many European countries are facing similar crisis of pockets of society feeling a sense of isolation and detachment and the responsibility lies in thinking laterally and starting to rebuild accordingly. For those interested in the rise of Africa, books should be written and films produced. The subject of slavery could have such a positive impact on those most ignored and become a booming industry and a new inventive economy controlled by the disenfranchised.

A surge of Slave Museums have popped up over the past 5 to 10 years. They seem extremely popular with the public, all of whom want to enjoy an illusionary moment of freedom but who benefits? The purpose of a Slave Museum surely is to empower the Black Communities, but instead they are run by the Establishment. We all know there is money in Slavery but this is perverse psychology. Slave Museums have opened in Cape Town, SA; Liverpool and London, England; in the US there is Washington DC, Memphis, Atlanta, Charleston, Maryland, Baltimore, New Orleans, Alexandria, VA and something here is not adding up. Africans are yet again denied the power of their past as this is all to do with ownership, which has always been denied to black people worldwide, it is as Sir Isaiah Berlin noted, this is a form of what he called “Orientalism”. Those that write the history own the minds of the people. This is unacceptable in the 21st Century and needs to be reconsidered with some join-up thinking. There needs to be links into the Caribbean to Jamaica, Cuba and Trinidad, to South America to Brazil and Guyana and to Africa to Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria to Morocco and Egypt. The Abolition of Slavery in Mauritania came in 2007. It would be refreshing to see the Dutch act differently to the US and UK models of Slave Museums.

“The fate of Africa is that after slavery, colonialism, apartheid and neo-liberal globalization is that Africans are not agents of their lives. Definitions, agendas paradigms, and perspectives are still imposed by Europeans and others, who dominate all aspects of the African reality. Thus the image of Africa, the concepts of Africa imposed on the world are those created and controlled by non-African forces. Globalization is therefore not only an imposition of products, but also of ideas and ideals — at the expense of broader human diversity.”

Source: African Holocaust | 

Africa is the US and Europe’s best kept secret. These Museums have kept unsurprisingly quiet so that those in the Caribbean and the Continent of Africa are not aware of the honey-pot that they all have their paws imbedded in.  Who are the West trying to empower but those that are already established, this is dirty politics at its worst and hopefully the Netherlands will see the opportunities far clearer, than their international counterparts.

Author: Joe Pollitt

Here is the video of the unveiling. Superb.

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