A provoking piece of art has sailed into the International Slavery Museum in the Port of Liverpool. The mesmerising installation, ‘Their Spirits Gone Before Them’ is a five metre-long cottonwood canoe with 1,357 resin figures. Each figure represents the loss of a life to the slave trade.
Resilience resonates from the canoe and the stoic figures represent universal traits that underpin all humankind.
It’s not about ropes, chains or torture but rather, it is a sculpture that communicates transcendence, reverence, strength and unity,
cites the artist, Laura Facey.
This unsettling installation is part of Their Spirits, an exhibition showcasing the portfolio of the acclaimed Jamaican craftswoman and running until 7th September 2014.
In conversation, Facey reveals the story behind the creation,
The inspiration for Their Spirits Gone Before Them has a bit of history. The piece began with the Redemption Song Monument, which I was commissioned to do by the Government of Jamaica. I won a blind competition and in 2003 that piece was unveiled at the ceremonial entrance to the Emancipation Park in Kingston in Jamaica.
And after that piece was unveiled the Government asked me to make miniature souvenirs pieces of the monument, which I duly set about doing. And partway through that project I became rather frustrated, but then I started to see these miniatures in a cotton wood canoe. We have these wonderful cotton wood canoes that fishermen paddle around the island and I just kept seeing these miniatures in the canoe and I went, though I had a little bit of a struggle, how can I take my healed figures and make them… put them back into a slave canoe.
And then my husband was reading a book called The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson and he just read a little passage, which said “though the slaves were in the valley of the ship their spirits had gone before them into the Blue Mountains” and that was my permission. You know I realised of course we are eternal and that’s what I believe and so I set off looking for a canoe. And as soon as I found it I installed 1,357 of the miniatures into the canoe.
So I took these exact Redemption Song figures and put them in the canoe and made them face each other because I’m carrying the same message as the Redemption Song into the canoe. The Redemption Song piece is prayerful in its essence or I think of it as such: two people in communion with the divine and also with themselves.
My piece is, though it’s initially as you look at it, it is about slavery but it’s, when you look closer and you see that the people are actually whole, the little figures in the canoe are whole and full and you know in a divine sort of feeling space, they are proud, they have come through it, above it and that’s what’s important. We touch on the past but we need to heal the patterns of the past, break from the past.
Their Spirits Gone Before Them was awarded the UNESCO Slave Route Project logo in 2013.
The artist hopes that the vessel will continue on its journey to other destinations, particularly those ports that were directly involved with slavery.
I would love people to take away hope, change, that we can change our lives that we can heal, that we are in fact healing and the fact that the canoe is even being shown here is a statement about that.
It’s a poignant reminder that, of all the many thousands who sailed to and from the Liverpool Docks, not all did so willingly.