The World Reimagined
Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye
The history of the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans has been rewritten, sanitized, flat out misrepresented, and often obscured by the lens through which we observe history.
As a society, when we need to get a more enlightened look at ourselves and the world around us, we turn to the vision of artists.
This week’s guest Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye is artistic director of the World Reimagined -- a national public art project in the United Kingdom that explores the history & legacy of the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans; and presents a forward-looking approach to reframing history as an essential element toward solidarity and greater inclusion.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been rewritten, sanitized, or completely misrepresented in the century since slavery's abolition. Holidays like Juneteenth and Emancipation Day commemorate the freeing of enslaved Africans in the Americas and the British colonies. But the devastating legacy is usually missing from how history is told. The legacies of intergenerational trauma, baked in inequality and real life economic effects have been obscured by the bias lens through which history is observed. Artists can clarify and sharpen our understanding of reality. Ashley Shaw Scotta Adjaye is artistic director of The World Reimagined - a national public art project in the UK that explores the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Ashley, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:08)
Thank you, Angela. I'm excited to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:11)
What exactly is The World Reimagined and what are the components of it?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:17)
It is a really an idea that became a project that became a full blown charity. What began just over three and a half years ago. It began with Dennis Marcus and Michelle Gayle, our two co-founders having a conversation one day, meeting for the first time and somehow talking about how odd they felt that this history about the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans really wasn't discussed in public realms. It wasn't really taught in their school curriculum and they thought, what could we do as individuals to create something that engages the public? And they went to art, and specifically in art, they went to sculpture trails.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:08)
What are sculpture trails?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:11)
Sculpture trails are when you have one form of sculpture and that is repeated multiple times. Artists decorate or paint one individual sculpture, and it becomes a collection and a story. So they thought they would use that mechanism to really explain this history and have these sculptures in public places across the city of London. That was the original idea. So we commissioned Yinka [Shonibare] to be our first artist. He's now our founding artist. We commissioned him to do a globe. He named that piece, The World Reimagined, and we were so taken by that name that we thought, well, let's name the whole project The World Reimagined because it's a forward looking approach to this history, where we're taking the history, we're understanding it collectively and then we're deciding what are we gonna do with this? This was a seismic shift in history, this involved West Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe. So this was a massive part of the entire world. And that's why this made sense to have as a globe.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:28)
Tell us about The World Reimagined and why it is so important to center the role of art as a means to reframe the past and reimagine the future.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:38)
We believe that art has the incredible power to bridge across barriers or water that we have separating us, whether it's language or location or culture or religion, whatever it is. When you see art as a human being, you can connect with it. And this project is really asking people to connect with this history, to understand the history and to use the vision of artists, to extend an invitation, to learn.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:12)
Tell us a little bit about your journey, how this type of work was, what you had been waiting for, in a sense.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:20)
You know, I went to Stanford for my undergrad and there ultimately I studied race. And even though it was in the Humanities and I studied philosophy and visual arts, the topic that I did my thesis on was race in America. And, um, and outsider's perspective of that. Fast forward, I moved to the UK. I started a family. Within the architectural practice that I worked at, Adjaye Associates, we have always looked at culture and race and civilization, religion, and really understood how does architecture and how does the built environment relate to that? So personally and thematically in my life, this has been very consistent. Now what's interesting is we left the UK in 2019. We came to Ghana and what was unexpected was of course COVID. And then, of course, George Floyd's murder and I felt very, um, disconnected. So that heightened my desire to work on this project. Because I was so removed, I felt like I needed to put this energy into something. And this project really at the root of it is about racial justice. And so I have been able to connect to it through that.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:52)
The connection to the UK is interesting. Are people in the UK hungry for something that brings the transatlantic slave trade and more of the true history into sharp relief?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:02)
I think so. Just the other day, I spoke to a young woman who is of a white, British background. She's from a small town and she now lives in London. But she learned that the town that she lived in, which has a river that runs through it, was a port. And that port is related to this history and she was shocked. She said, no one's ever spoken about this. No one's ever told me. There's no plaque. It's not in our school system. It's like it never happened. And I think for her, she felt almost robbed by this of understanding that history that was living so close to her for such a long time. So there's that. There's also, I think, young, Black and Brown people who are searching for acknowledgement of this history, People of all ages, really, who are saying this needs to be discussed.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:09)
One of the things that is interesting though about this effort is that it's gonna be uncomfortable for a lot of people. How are these artists tackling the complex mission of depicting truth and moving toward greater inclusion and perhaps harmony?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:26)
The honest answer is that it's challenging. We are looking at how to tell this story in public spaces while also being very sensitive to the trauma that is attached to this story and being particularly sensitive to people who have a direct history related to this story, as they might be a descendant of an enslaved African. How do they feel on going on their way to work to see this? We're trying to do that with delicacy. We're trying to do that with honesty. The artists are incredibly brave. They are incredibly creative. They are looking at this from very different angles. And what I asked them to do is to expand the canon of imagery that surrounds this history. Right now, we feel that that canon is very narrow. And, you know, as the novelist Chinua Achebe famously says, "Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter." So this is an opportunity for the lions to tell their story.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:46)
I want listeners to understand this project. You're constructing these massive Globes. They're about five feet in diameter. They're quite striking to look at at how many are there, give us a little preview.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:58)
We have 103 Globes, and I should also explain that we are in seven different cities. We are now going to be in Bristol, Birmingham, London, Liverpool City Region, Leeds, Leicester, and Swansea.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:22)
I'm particularly interested in the educational curriculum component of The World Reimagined. Describe the scale of that initiative and how to engage students and teachers in schools.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:32)
Created for the primary school students,there's a curriculum that's based on mother Africa, which is our first theme. The secondary school curriculum is our entire journey of discovery.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:50)
The journey of discovery is made up of nine themes. And so in each trail we have 10 Globes, more or less. Nine of the Globes are related to the journey of discovery themes. So those themes are Mother Africa. That's where we're looking at Africa, pre-colonial pre-slavery Africa to recognize that there was an entire history, civilization,many millennia of art and culture and technology that should be acknowledged.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:28)
Then we go into our second theme called, The Reality of Being Enslaved. This just like it sounds describes the experience from capture to transport, to life in a new environment. Then we move on to Stolen Legacy and Rebirth of a Nation. And that really looks at how the commodification of human beings led to an extraordinary economic growth that allowed the UK to flourish. And we then move on to Abolition and Emancipation. And that's where we really unpack those two aspects of this history. Then we move into a complex triangle and that's where we look at how that relationship between West Africa, the Americas and Caribbean, and the UK transformed how it evolved because this initial shift was forever part of this history.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:38)
Echoes in the Present unpacks some of the physical, psychological, political aspects of this history that live on today. So when you look at policing, when you look at housing, when you look at health disparities, what are those echoes in the present? Then we go into Still We Rise, which is an important part of this journey to celebrate the people who, despite significant barriers and challenges, have flourished and have led in various industries, whether it's science, film, music, expanding soul helps us to understand the international impact of the African diaspora. So we think of culture. You know, you think of music, grim music in the UK is at once British music and also Black music. So we move on to our last theme, the ninth theme Reimagine the Future. We want our artists to imagine what does that future look like? So now that we have literally walked this trail together, as these Globes are positioned throughout the cities, what are we going to do with this history? The last globe is the community globe. And that's where we have an artist work with community members to bring this topic into place -- who are the people who are part of this history and understand the context of that.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:19)
Ashley, thank you so much for walking me through that. You really brought it to life completely. And you started talking about that as you were about to explain the educational component in the schools, make the link.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:32)
Well in the secondary school curriculum, we teach this entire journey of discovery and bring the information, the factual information to young people. Many teachers need some support to understand how to have uncomfortable conversations, how to create safe spaces for dialogue. And so we provide in our learning program that training, we also have a creative output. So once you've gone through the curriculum, then you could create a poem and really process what you have learned and turn it into a creative expression.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:17)
Are you anticipating any pushback to this? Getting into the schools?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:23)
Yes, we do have that. And we are prepared for that. That is, that is the reality that this is where we are right now. And it's not unified-- the perspective on this history. And so what we want to do is bring this, we want to offer this. What we hope is that regardless of what your position is, you're open enough to hear it. And that may begin the dialogue.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:53)
Now that the project is launched, what happens next?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:57)
All of our Globes, all of our sculptures will be on display until October 31st in the UK. October is Black History Month. So we'll do quite a lot of programming around the work that we've done. Now, once the Globes come down at the end of October, we then will have an auction. Those proceeds from that will go to, in part, the artist. It's important that these artists are supported, not just with opportunity, but financially. And then we also will support some of the organizations that we've worked with, who are furthering racial justice. So we'll have a bursary program where we give grants according to how much we've raised. And then lastly, it allows us to continue our community program. We also are looking at the opportunity to bring this to another location, potentially the Caribbean or the US or West Africa. We're quite open to bringing this somewhere where the framework that we have created can help tell a history and particularly a challenging history. But I think what we have, because as you said, it is quite robust and it is a detailed way of learning. And I think a comprehensive way of learning, using the art to using history, bringing this all together, and I hope that this work can live on in another way.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:42)
As you think about all that you have learned and how much you have been able to grow and reach and expand, what would you tell your younger self?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:55)
So I would say to my younger self, keep going, uh, something to that effect. It's not really a straightforward path, but I did what I believed in. I did what really made me feel alive and made me feel excited intellectually. And so I would just tell myself to continue that it will eventually all make sense and that it will be a really fulfilling journey.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:27)
Ashley, thank you for speaking with us.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:30)
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:34)
Ashley Shaw, Scotta Adjaye is artistic director of The World Reimagined, a national public art project in the UK that explores the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. There's a racial awakening happening all over the world. This awakening includes growing racial consciousness and curiosity, and it's occurring alongside entrenched fears of being honest about racial history. Art and artists can keep this burgeoning racial consciousness alive, fan the flames of curiosity, and ultimately transform the way we understand ourselves. Art that is rooted in our history can build our future, helping us heal our historical wounds and create a new story about the world reimagined. Please visit the Journey of Discovery at radicalimagination.us to view the Globes and experience the sculpture trails.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:38)
Radical Imagination was produced for PolicyLink by Futuro Studios. The Futuro team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Joaquin Cotler, Stephanie Lebow, Juan Diego Ramirez, Liliana Ruiz, Sophia Lowe , Susanna Kemp and Andy Bosnack. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Vanice Dunn , Ferchil Ramos, Fran Smith, Loren Madden, Perfecta Oxholm and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:33)
Next time on Radical Imagination. Are we in the middle of a great resignation or a great revolution?
Guest #1: (19:39)
The future of work is gonna be determined by whether we see events like the Amazon workers unionizing, the Starbucks workers unionizing, or whether they get crushed and people just learn to continue lowering our expectations like we have been doing for the last 40 years.
Guest #2: (19:54)
This is a long time permanent restructuring of the economy. It's a pretty miraculous and hopeful thing.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:02)
That's next time on Radical Imagination.
Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye, a native Californian with Bajan and Yoruba roots, is known for promoting the representation of those not in the room and creating conversations that generate action towards equity. She is the Artistic Director of The World Reimagined, a national public art project in the UK that explores the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. She is also the Global Head of Research at Adjaye Associates, an award-winning international architectural firm committed to community engagement through civic projects. She holds a BA in Philosophy and Visual Art from Stanford University, an MBA from INSEAD, and a MSc from the Gender Institute at London School of Economics. Currently, Ashley sits on the Africa Futures Institute Board of Trustees, Prince’s Trust International Africa Advisory Board, and the Institute of Imagination Board of Trustees. She lives between Accra, London and New York City with her family.