Jazz Slave Ships
Paul Wong, 1998
15 min., video documentation
Jazz Slave Ships, Witness, I Burn was a site-specific performance collaboration between Vancouver artist Jan Wade and London-based performer Vanessa Richards that involved the creation of an ancestral altar. It took place in two U.K. ports in October 1996: on the West Coast in Whitehaven, Cumbria (the last English slaving port), in an 18th century bonded warehouse used to store liquor and guns used in the slave trade; and on the East Coast in Hull, Yorkshire in Wilberforce House, the birthplace of the anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce and now a museum of anti-slavery. The production took place over a 3-week period that began Sept. 30, 1996.
Wade’s work focused on altars as vehicles for worship, vessels of African spirituality and for reconciling the painful past of the African Diaspora.. She created altars using objects relating to Black spirituality in the practice of santeria (a mixture of Yoruban spirituality and New World Catholicism). The site in Whitehaven was an 18th century liquor merchants’ warehouse on the docks still owned by the Jefferson sisters, descendants of the family that built it, and with direct links to the slave trade. The idea was that a space used to enslave the ancestors was cleansed by the process of creating the altar within it.
The 3-dimensional altars were constructed of wood found on the sites. The reference was to the African practice that whenever a drum or votive object was created, they would use wood from a tree closest to the village as that tree would hold the village’s stories. The wood that Wade found at the sites was believed to contain the voices and stories of those villages. There were man-made objects such as horseshoes, hands, 8-balls, dolls, acrylic paint and organic elements like shells and rocks, incense, fire and music. The finished 3-D sculptures were approximately 10′ x 4′.
The altars were then lowered into water for a symbolic voyage back to Africa. In Whitehaven it was into the Irish Sea, and in Hull it was the pond in the Nelson Mandela commemorative garden adjacent to the museum. This was following the African custom of sacrificing ancestral objects to the sea, the water being the home of the spirit world. During the voyages to slavery in the New World, many captives chose to jump over board where they believed the ancestors and spirits lived. Under the mirrored surface of the water, they would be returned home to Africa. Sacrificing the ancestral altars to the sea was seen as a holistic act of acknowledgment and remembering. These acts were accompanied by a performance.
The performance is an important element in the African tradition of producing ritual objects, altars, or drums would involve a ceremony of song and storytelling. These actions were required for the objects to be sanctified and made relevant to the community. Vanessa Richards, a performance poet originally from Vancouver, acted as Wade’s griot (storyteller).
Jazz Slave Ships was presented in conjunction with the “Year of Visual Art in the North of England” – a series of international exhibitions from March to November 1996, and Black History Month in the U.K.
A co-production by On Edge (Vancouver) and Locus + (Newcastle).
Jazz Slave Ships – Videotape and CD
Working with videotape shot on site in October 1996, we have produced this post-event document, covering the collaboration, the creation process, performance and completed work. The tape was produced from over 25 hours of raw footage. Locus + has produced an audio CD from the live and post-events studio recordings of the performance text. The videotape and CD are designed to be used as a set.
Executive Producer: Elspeth Sage
Directors: Elspeth Sage and Paul Wong
Editor: Paul Wong
AssistantEditor: Joe Sarahan
On-line Editor: Maureen Bradley
Videographers: Paul Wong, Elspeth Sage, Simon Herbert
Photographers: Jon Bewley, Simon Herbert
Visual Artists: Jan Wade
Performance: Vanessa Richards
Production Assistant: Jonti Tarbuck, Kerry Elliott and Andrew Dodds
Post-Production: Video In Studios
Producers: On Edge (Vancouver), Locus + (Newcastle)
Funding: Arts Council Live Art Commissions (U.K.), Arts Council of England, Canada Council Exhibition Assistance, Canadian High Commission (London), Northern Arts (U.K.), Public Gaming Branch of B.C.
Thanks To: Elizabeth & Constance Jefferson, Harry Fancy, Princess Toro, Ian Hind, Kevin Carr, people of Whitehaven, Hull Time-Based Arts, Wilberforce House, Sharon & Alex Summers, and the Root Festival.
An On Edge/Locus + co-production. All rights reserved.