As the UK commemorates the end of the slave trade, an original sculpture has been commissioned by Christian Aid and National Museums Liverpool from a group of Haitian artists representing their continuing struggle for freedom and human rights.
The work was unveiled yesterday (Monday) in Liverpool’s Merseyside Maritime Museum. It will now tour the country, taking in London and Bristol, before returning to Liverpool where it will remain on permanent display in the new International Slavery Museum, which opens on 23 August.
The Freedom! sculpture, made out of recycled objects such as metal car parts and raw junk found in the dangerous slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince, was created by young Haitians and sculptors Eugène, Céleur and Guyodo from Atis Rezistans in collaboration with Mario Benjamin, an internationally renowned Haitian artist who has represented his country at Biennials in Venice, São Paulo and Johannesburg.
Despite the fact that Parliament abolished the transatlantic slave trade in the UK 200 years ago, global inequalities still exist today. It is no longer legal for people to be traded as commodities. But millions of people in places like Haiti, are still forced by poverty to work in unhealthy, dangerous – even life-threatening – conditions, say campaigners.
Haiti became the first black republic as a result of the first successful slave revolt. Today, however, because of unfair terms of trade and hefty international debt repayments, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere with 82 per cent of the rural population living below the poverty line according to the UN and 70 per cent of the population is unemployed.
Unfair terms of global trade make it impossible for local farmers to compete with food imports from richer countries. Haiti is a stark example of this kind of economic injustice, which makes many thousands of people flood into the cities to find jobs. But few find work and with no source of income many succumb to the temptation to use guns as a means of survival.
To incorporate a sense of what freedom and slavery means to people in Haiti today, the artists held workshops with young people benefiting from the work of APROSIFA, a Christian Aid-supported organisation in Haiti set up to provide basic education, run health clinics and work towards an end to gang fighting.
Ronald Cadet, one of the young collaborators said: "People don’t have chains on their arms and legs now, but people still have chains in their minds. When you have problems getting enough food, housing and education, you are not living in a free country." But, he said, working on this project made him see there was hope and "strength in being united".
Rose Anne Auguste, the founder of APROSIFA, said: "When you live in shanty towns you can feel like you have no right to culture. It is sad that Mario Benjamin had to teach these kids to visit museums. Their parents are too busy surviving to take them to museums."
Mario Benjamin, in the role of Artistic Director for the Freedom! sculpture said: "For me, it was very important to show that slavery has always been part of civilisation. My ambition was that we would create something that is quite universal, that is about suffering, hoping, fighting, what humanity has been about all the time."
The sculpture has already received the support of Christian Aid’s trade ambassador and award-winning actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. The piece will become the main permanent exhibit in the ‘Contemporary Issues’ section of the new International Slavery Museum when it opens in Liverpool on Slavery Remembrance Day, 23 August, the day which commemorates the uprising of enslaved Africans in Haiti.
David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool said "This remarkable sculpture is an important work of art in its own right, but it also symbolises the links between the historic transatlantic slave trade and contemporary issues of freedom, enslavement and global inequalities. It is fitting that its permanent home will be in the International Slavery Museum, due to open on the anniversary of the revolution which created Haiti, the world's first independent Black republic."
People are encouraged to take campaigning action at www.pressureworks.org to help change unfair international trade rules and debt terms as part of the fight for freedom and basic human rights today.
The website will also have details about the sculpture’s UK tour, video of its creation and interviews with the artists.
For more information about the museum visit www.internationalslaverymuseum.org.uk
Venues for the UK tour of Freedom!
Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool: 26 Feb – 18 March
House of Commons, London (to be confirmed): 20 March – 1 April
Stratford Circus Arts Centre, London: 3 April – 19 April
The Empire & Commonwealth Museum, Bristol: 23 April – 11 June
The Eden Project, Cornwall: 13 June – 31 July
International Slavery Museum, Liverpool: 23 August onwards