Sokari Douglas Camp

Sokari Douglas Camp discusses her commission in Burgess Park

Left: Sokari Douglas Camp, First Man, 2009, bronze, stainless steel, terrazzo, 6 x 1 x 31’. Installation view. Right: Installation of First Man.

To commemorate Britain’s bicentennial of the abolition of slavery, London-based sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp was commissioned to produce a major public art work. Here, she discusses her forthcoming project for London’s Burgess Park, All the World is Now Richer, a collection of six bronze figures.

I ORIGINALLY MADE this work for London’s Hyde Park; it was submitted in a competition to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery. In the end, I lost the commission to another artist. Not long after, though, I had an exhibition at London’s Wallspace and was fortunate in that another borough in the city decided that they would realize this commission. It did take some bargaining, and persuasion, but they found the funds to do it. The borough that took it on, Southwark, is right next to Westminster, and it has several important landmarks––the Imperial War Museum, Tate Modern, Tower Bridge, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Peckham Library––but it also happens to be extraordinarily poor. The sculpture is going to be in Burgess Park, which is a regeneration park in Southwark. It’s not Hyde Park––not a royal park––but it’s a people’s park. It hasn’t been nurtured as much as the others in London, but it’s getting there. Southwark is an important borough and there happens to be a large African population living in it. My main aim for the work is to create a sense of pride for black people, because although Wilberforce’s movement [one of the eighteenth-century abolitionist lobbies] was fantastic in its day, the monuments of the period—such as the antislavery medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787—seem inappropriate today: A black man on his knees begging to be recognized as a man is hurtful, and from a black perspective it doesn’t make me feel proud.

During Britain’s bicentennial abolition celebrations, I was reading various essays about the slave trade and Middle Passage, and I came across a passage of text from the Quaker campaign to raise money for abolition efforts. I felt that these were the perfect words to go along with the sculptures: “From my rich ancestral lands, we were sold, bought, and used but we were brave. We were strong. We survived. All the world is now richer.” This helps to emphasize that the cities of Bristol, Liverpool, and London wouldn’t be the same without having profited from the slave trade. The fact still isn’t recognized enough, especially in London, where black men are so often arrested or searched for no reason. It’s a question of leaving a legacy of pride for future generations of black British people or black people in the world.

The first bronze, which is called The First Man, is going to be put outside the mayor’s office in Southwark, near Tower Bridge. It’s made of steel, and the figures in the work look welded, fabricated. They have an element of shantytown about them. But I also wanted this piece to have a look of expensiveness, so the ground these figures stand on is a huge terrazzo platform that offers similar words from the Quaker passage. The figures vary in size, from six feet to nearly eight feet tall. The tallest is the plantation worker. He is formidable. He nearly fell on me in my studio several times. The third figure is sort of a mama type with nice droopy breasts, and you can imagine her feeding many children and tending house. The fourth is a Creole woman based on Sierra Leone women living in London. This is a lady that obviously has style and is sophisticated. Then there is a person in a suit, the fifth person. The last figure is in jeans and a T-shirt, which is a uniform that is universal and yet very contemporary. He is like every other man of the future in that his heritage is what has made the world what it is today. Behind him are the words ALL THE WORLD IS NOW RICHER. It is rather ironic that I am talking about profits from slavery during recession. But that seems to be how the world functions: There are slaves somewhere who enabled us to have the status we have in more developed countries. I think it is a story that needs to be told continuously.