Hidden Histories

Hidden Histories 2018

The Barber’s Learning and Engagement team partnered with Dr Asha Rodgers, University of Birmingham (UoB) lecturer in Contemporary Postcolonial Literature, and artist and writer Dzifa Benson to deliver a two-part event collaborating with UoB students.

Students participated in a workshop with Dzifa Benson which explored artworks and objects in the Barber collection that depict, refer to or have been collected from people of colour. By spending time in the galleries with the works and accessing the Barber’s curatorial files the students undertook research aiming to unpick the multiple histories in our museum collections that can go unexplored, disregarded or ignored.

The workshop pieced together the human stories hidden within the works and revealed how their legacies continue to shape the way we think about the collection.

Following the workshop students were supported to use creative writing techniques to produce their own alternative object labels for the selected works in the collection. Creative writing critically allowed space for emotion in the interpretation that the students produced for these often charged works. This alternative interpretation was displayed during a celebratory evening event, which also featured readings by Dzifa and the students.

“This event made me feel like my heritage and voice are being heard and welcomed at the Barber. Thank you for investing in BME representation.”

Student participant

My warm thanks for making our workshop yesterday such a success! Especially you, Dzifa for being so generous and thought-provoking in your delivery, and you Becca, for helping open up the Barber and its archives. In my view, it was not only extremely generative creatively and critically, but also a really rare opportunity to get inside a museum and study the mechanics of representation.

Dr Asha Rodgers, Lecturer in Contemporary Postcolonial Literature at UoB

About the artist

Dzifa Benson is a multi-disciplinary live artist who uses literature as her primary mode of expression. The intersections between science, art, the body and ritual and by the question of who or what is invisible animate Dzifa’s practice.

She explores this through poetry, storytelling, theatre, performance, libretti, essay, journalism and a range of other media. She also embraces education, collaboration and participation at the heart of her practice. Born in London to Ghanaian parents, Dzifa grew up in Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. She has performed her work internationally in many contexts and a core artist in BBC Africa Beyond’s cross-arts project, Translations.

Her poetry, stories, plays, libretti, journalism and essays have been published and presented in Poetry Review, The Guardian, Southbank Centre, Tate Britain, They Royal Opera House, Bristol Old Vic, other venues across internationally.

Alternative interpretation

Teapot and Stand

Golden opulence that bares the rare ‘Britannia
Incuse Mark’. Unstained by those loose
leaves, to which it seems to correspond;
Shrouded in silence by the glass display case
who smothers its screams to be touched, held, used.
A dense silence.
Its edges too painful, its gold too yellow in hue
with smells of earth metal and polishing agent.
Leaning towards the gleaming honey pool,
my distorted nose reflection is broken
by the crest, clad in a fish scale glimmer.
A sour taste.
As I walk away, I imagine making a golden pot of tea
and wonder if it is even a teapot at all.
Or just an emblematic problematic
twenty-nine ounces of vanity

Bethan Fairhurst, BA English Literature

African Boy Riding Upon a Billy-Goat

You see them as one body
But they are in fact two
The boy to the sculptor:
“fingering the muscular quads you cleaved me
tracing my hand over your deceptively smooth and chiseled line work
at night I feel my fingers fanning out creating friction against the inside of the conch
scratching and digging until the debris clogs up my nails
rubbing the hot metally residue in between my sweaty fingertips
I feel his fine goat hairs unduly caress my bronze-husk behind”
The boy to the spectator:
“you think i willingly straddle his rump
and comb my hands through his hefty horns
they are stuck to it by sculptors moulding metal
and every night I wait to roll over and walk outside the glass”
What you see is not a symbiotic relationship
The boy is a human
The goat is an animal
But both are made beasts by men.

Sana Haq, BA English Literature

How time seems to slow to nothing
when you have to be three things
at once – custodian of history’s
deep mythic time, arcane iconography
and a word that causes offence.
Il Riccio’s Strombus Giga overwhelms
his slight shoulders, the hissing
in the gigantic conch eats the air
for the din and drift of unwise things.
The boy’s arm fuses with goat’s horn
tethering the artist to the posterity of a lie.
Boot-lace black asks: Where does it go to graze and chew the cud?
Liquorice black says: They believed goats to be sexually mature at only seven days.
Soot black says: History and language history are that solitary, sacrificial goat.
Obsidian black asks: Whose thin skin of woman born sows panic, warps creation?
Blood black says: yours, not mine, is pulled from the world beyond my figure.
In the conflict between the divine and bestial
Mr Oseji maintains the boy had a soul.
Come closer folks, there is everything
to see here. A record of taste and knowledge
never off duty, in Riccio’s bronze.
Mostly, it’s a lack.

Dzifa Benson, artist

The Wrath of Ahasuerus

Leiden, Holland, about 1671-3
Oil on canvas
129 x 167cm

Is the Bermuda Triangle a hole in the sea?
Giving way to a swirling rage which circles
It’s prey like the Bermuda Triangle swallow up passing ships
Which brings us to another triangle which didn’t swallow up ships, oh no
it left those ships alone, it needed those ships, just as it needed those people
that Triangle swallowed up People as though they were ships
or less than ships
The two figures swallowed up by darkness
You can find them underneath the
But the Parrot has more space to speak than ‘Them’
Oh yes, there is a storm brewing outside
It is brewing like a hot hot cup of tea
Like a hot cup of tea – that tea has origins
That tea is not just dark add a little milk its English breakfast
Delve deeper, delve underneath the surface,
Underneath the caramel colour of the tea, underneath the surf, the surface of the sea
The sea remembers
Those waves that smash and crash do not smash and crash in arbitrary anger
The sea remembers
The frothy white and translucent blue smashed pieces on the floor
The body (of sea, of vase, of human) – absence is a [w]hole, isn’t it?

Anya Aujla-Jones, BA English

Esther’s Wrath
Honey, hang him and his plans to kill-
The bubbling sky our curtain holds, and our Judaism.
The parrot in my room,
and barely noticing when they take him out
to fly over the palace, then out over the plane.
If one day he doesn’t come back, I can blame them-
pretend it isn’t the instinct of the bird,
to fly back to a hot home
Our guest, he wants to send me to a hot hell
To the help, sorry you have to see this, this hurricane eye.
I focus on the carnival feathers of my parrot,
and the palms-lighter-than-the-back touching them.

Megan Reddy, BA English Literature.

For more information

Please contact Becca Randle, Learning & Engagement Coordinator.