A Nice Cup of Tea?

A post from Nicola Bird, Community Engagement Officer for Oxford University Gardens, Libraries and Museums on a collaborative arts project.  Working with local residents of Oxford and Oxford University students, artists Enam Gbewonyo and Lois Muddiman reinterpreted the Ashmolean Ceramics Gallery to highlight connections with transatlantic slavery and bring in the voices of Oxford’s contemporary African Caribbean communities.

The chink of cups, time out to chat: tea represents comfort for many of us. But every sip of tea connects us to the history of the British Empire, trade and transatlantic slavery. Sweetened by sugar, the product of the brutal exploitation of slaves, tea and the fashion for drinking tea directly inspired the exquisite tea sets in the Ashmolean 18th Century Ceramics Gallery (Gallery 40).

Has the museum represented this complex history before? How can it be represented whilst ensuring the lives and stories of Oxford’s African Caribbean experiences are at its core? How can the Ashmolean make its collections relevant to contemporary issues such as the ongoing scandal of discrimination against the ‘Windrush generation’? These were the questions that a recent project at the Museum set out to address.

“You don’t see the story behind the pretty objects”

Move forward 18 months, and Gallery 40 has been transformed. Visitors approaching the ceramics collections first encounter the striking contemporary art installation Nice Cup of Tea? by Enam Gbewonyo and Lois Muddiman. Standing in front of this, you are surrounded by the voices of Oxford’s own Elders of the Windrush generation. Portrait photographer Fran Monks’ compelling series of images bring the people involved in the project right into the gallery.

Grace, Coordinator for BK LUWO & Head of African Dance / Angela, member of BK LUWO

This was a landmark piece of work in many ways, supported by the Oxford Arts Society it is the first community collaborative art installation in a permanent gallery. Built on an innovative approach to developing a diverse project team that valued different skills and networks in Oxford it reflects a more equitable approach to how the Ashmolean Museum works with, and for, its local communities. Sitting within a much wider remit of the Oxford Windrush Group, Nice Cup of Tea? is one strand of a series of activities in Oxford City between 2018 – 2019 to commemorate the arrival of the Windrush in 1948 and to celebrate those immigrants and their families.

The project team included two new ‘Community Ambassador’ paid roles employing Taiwo Oyebola (Oxford University student and previously president of the African Caribbean Society) and Amantha Edmead (local Story Teller, Actor and theatre producer) to help ensure the project put the communities at the centre of the work. They joined myself, Matthew Winterbottom (Curator for Sculpture and Decorative Arts), Jo Rice (Manager of the Learning Team), an independent Historian Myfanwy Lloyd (Oxford Arts Consultants), Participation Consultant Angeli Vaid (Oxford Arts Consultants) and Euton Daley (Oxford City Council Arts Development Officer).

It was my job to balance the needs of the communities in Oxford with the strategic aims of the museum, making sure decisions were more transparent and open. Even though this could make the pace slower, checking everything we did, wrote and planned with the project team and groups we worked with was a fundamental element in ensuring the Museum is more accountable and inclusive. Together this team commissioned the artists, planned and delivered workshops, and galvanised members of Oxford’s communities to not only collaborate, but to be intrinsically woven into the stories, previous untold, that are now represented in Gallery 40. At times, the parameters started to shift and it was challenging to meet the growing expectations of the museum and the community group within the budget available. The key lesson learnt is to have a clear plan of the method from the outset whilst keeping the outcomes open. Also, to not be afraid to consult and take time to ensure lessons are learnt about inclusive practice.

Over 3 months, the collaborators, many from the international women’s community group BK LUWO shared ideas, reflection and histories to help develop the artists’ installation and link the everyday act of drinking tea that connects us all to the legacy of British Empire and transatlantic slavery. For the museum, hidden histories in the gallery were revealed. For many of the women of BK LUWO, the work supported wellbeing as the project group shared their space and witnessed how they support each other in their daily lives in Oxford. Our collaborators were clear – we don’t want to be labelled; we want people and human histories to be at the centre of the installation and we want the lives broken by discrimination, slavery and exploitation to be represented. What also emerged though the workshops and discussion was the varied experience of Oxford’s African-Caribbean Elders when they settled in Oxford, and their pride in an immensely rich African and African Caribbean heritage. The artists involved our collaborators in every stage of development both in the museum and at community venues in Oxford. The women from BK LUWO donated images to represent generations of their families. These images were then stained with tea, and collaged onto tea sets. Both the artists and collaboratos then smashed the cups and teapots to represent the smashing of the British Empire and transatlantic slavery. These smashed and fractured pieces form the basis of the final installation, which despite the brutal process of manufacture is surprisingly elegant as well as arresting.

Culminating in a vibrant private view for Nice Cup of Tea? and the inaugural Oxford Windrush Day held in the Museum, the project has demonstrated fundamental change at the Ashmolean: a change in which histories and stories are presented in the galleries, a change in who tells those stories, and a change to make the museum display multi-vocal and multi-layered to reflect the rich diversity in our local community.

Including more voices / perspectives naturally means there is more negotiation involved and this made the work more time and resource intensive. However, the outcomes justifies the extra resources required. Importantly, it is through these negotiations that genuine inclusive working practices are explored and learned.  The benefits far outweigh the challenges as this is where the most learning actually happens, pushing what is possible and bringing a refreshing approach to the work of the Museum. The community ambassador model is now being applied to up and coming projects across the institutions of Oxford GLAM (Gardens, Libraries and Museums).

Nice Cup of Tea? Gallery 40 now – April 2020.

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