Sunday, 6 September 2015


“Ignorance or concealment of major historical events constitutes an obstacle to mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation among peoples.”

Artwork by Cuban artist Kcho.
These words from the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, were prominently displayed during a seminar, artistic performance and exhibition that the organization hosted on Sept. 4 in Paris - part of an event titled “Artists and the Memory of Slavery: Resistance, creative freedom and legacies”.

To promote dialogue and help “break the historical silence”, UNESCO launched an exhibition comprising several monumental works by 15 contemporary artists from Benin, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, who offered “a fresh perspective on the tragic history of relations between Africa and the Caribbean”, according to the agency.

The exhibition, “Modern Times”, will be open to the public at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters from Sept 7 to 11, allowing viewers to discover both new and established artists and how they perceive the memory and legacy of 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.

In addition to the unveiling of the works, UNESCO invited artists, researchers and cultural experts from different parts of the world to take part in sessions that focused on the influence that the remembrance of slavery has had on literature, the visual arts, music and dance.

Artwork by Remy Samuz of Benin: "slavery hasn't ended".
Participants included Congolese musician Ray Lema, American saxophonist Archie Shepp, and French actor and director Jacques Martial, who is President of the Memorial ACTe in Guadeloupe - a new Caribbean centre devoted to the "Expression and Memory of Slavery & the Slave Trade".

The main hallway of UNESCO’s Paris headquarters also formed the stage for an original work of dance and music about tradition and modernity, titled “Ogun Today”. In this, a five-member band provided “world beats” to accompany a dancer who did an acrobatic routine, first with machetes in his hands (an enslaved person working in the fields?) and then with a broom. Meanwhile a drone observed his actions from overhead, dipping and diving to keep the "surveillance" going.

The event marked the 21st anniversary of the Slave Route Project – an initiative launched in Ouidah, Benin, in 1994 that has put awareness-raising on the international agenda.

Work by Miguelina Rivera, Dominican Republic.
It has contributed to the recognition of slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, a declaration made at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The Project has also been collecting and preserving archives and oral traditions, supporting the publication of history books, and identifying places and sites of remembrance so that "itineraries for memory” can be developed.

At the Sept. 4 commemoration, however, some observers wondered about the under-representation of women artists and of participants from the English-speaking Caribbean. 

But a UNESCO official said that this was a consequence of having a limited budget. The agency is still facing a funding crisis mainly due to the United States' withholding its dues since 2011, when Palestine beame a member.

A performance artist at UNESCO's "Artists and the Memory of Slavery" event. (Photos: McKenzie)