«THE BLACK OCEAN »
by William Adjété Wilson
“The past isn’t dead and buried.
In fact, it isn’t even past.”
“No charge nor acquittal, simply understanding.”
For the past twenty-five years, William Wilson has been exploring the twists and turns of his own imagination and expressing himself in a vibrant and polychromatic style. He works on a wide range of supports, including dry pastel on paper, oil paint on canvas, ink and acrylic. The author of many lithographs and etchings, he is also a sculptor, with an eye for intriguing blendings of recycled material.
Whatever technique he favors at a particular moment, his style and imagery reveal a strong connection to the African heritage his father gave him.
With this new series of textile hangings, Wilson constructs an entire narrative of his African lineage in a work that reaches far beyond the field of art alone. The Black Ocean series is composed of 17 hand-woven cotton panels (1,60m x1m) – patchwork, appliqué and embroidery- illustrating in chronological order the adventure of the African people in the European and American diasporas from the 15th century to the 21st
It was while researching his own family history that William Wilson discovered the hidden part of History, with a capital H, that retraces the links between the African continent and the creation of the modern world.
Born in France to a French mother and a Togolese father, it was not until he turned 18 that he embarked on his first trip to Africa. It took time and patience to discover the astounding past of his African family, which he slowly did through historical research and interviews with the people he met there. Using their long-existing economic links with Europeans, his ancestors in Togo and Benin served as intermediaries in the slave trade.
Much later, the children of those ruling families were often educated in the West, mostly in Great Britain, France and Germany, becoming intellectuals, lawyers, doctors and politicians. I was quite surprised with these revelations. Proud to find aristocratic and cultivated origins as well as horrified to learn about the roles my families had in the slave trade and the colonization.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Togo and Benin, with their high literacy rates and well-established educated elite, were considered the cultural center of ” French-Africa”. From the group of families William Wilson was born into (the Wilson, Lawson, D’Almeida branches, etc.), rose the men and women who shaped the history of their country in the 19th and 20th centuries, a period that spans colonization to independence, and that continues to evolve to the present day. This heritage is the background Wilson wanted to explore in his new series.
In the 1960s, in his early teens, William Wilson learned of the US Civil Rights Movement and the messages of Black artists and intellectuals such as Richard Wright and Malcolm X. A passionate admirer of the great black musicians of the 70s and 80s (from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Marley), William Wilson grew up a French mixed-race “citizen of the world” even before the term was coined. He was well aware of racial prejudice and stereotyping, and, in sync with the tenor of the times, was ready to explore his African-European-American connections.
With this new series, William Wilson presents a personal narrative of the painfully convoluted alliances that for hundreds of years have tied the three continents together.
The educational value of such a narrative has never been greater than it is today, in a world that remains conflicted by problems of identity, cultural dissonance and global dislocation. The didactic intent is to teach people of all origins about the beginning of the modern world and about historical events that shaped the societies we live in today.
For centuries, the area facing the Gulf of Benin on the Atlantic coastline of Africa was known as the Slave Coast. In the 1700s and 1800s, the slave trade was particularly prosperous in Ouidah (Benin), whose port saw the greatest disembarkation of Africans for the Americas.
Europe was deeply involved in this slave trade, with ships from Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Malô, La Rochelle, Amsterdam, London, Barcelona, Marseilles, Lisbon and other ports participating in the infamous “Triangular Trade”. A thriving slave trade also linked Africa directly with Brazil and the Caribbean islands.
The history of commercial relations between Europe and West Africa began as early as the mid-14th century, led by Portuguese explorers. European merchants (French, British, Danish, Dutch, German) broke into the Portuguese monopoly in the mid 16th century.
These Europeans cultivated close relationships with the African kings and chiefs of the coastal regions who started their commercial enterprises with the exportation of gold, ivory and the importation of weapons, before the slave trade started to expand. From the 18th century onwards, the new trade strengthened alliances and helped the advancement of a thriving economy, bringing into this enterprise a new human commodity that deeply changed the destinies of all the participants, Africans and Europeans alike. The wealth nurtured at the expense of the captives carted as cargo throughout the Caribbean islands and the American continent flourished to the extent that this traffic became the greatest trans-Atlantic commercial activity for more than two centuries.
It took half a century after the official abolition of the slave trade for the lucrative commerce to stop, and even more time for slavery to be effectively banned, at least legally.
After the abolition of slavery (1833 in England, 1848 in France, 1865 in the US), Africa went through a period of colonization, which was followed by numerous struggles for independence in the 1950s and 1960s.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Black Americans had to fight to end segregation and to gain civil rights. That particular battle has not yet ended.
Black men are the main subject of the project: powerful African kings, slave dealers and captives carried away to the Caribbean islands and the American continent, taking their culture and traditions along with them; Maroons who escaped from slavery upon arrival or later, and who lived hidden in the forests, aided by indigenous peoples; the educated elites of the Mina kingdom who were so intriguing to the foreign powers, Germany, France and Great Britain, and who, as royal hostages at the time of early colonization, were taken to Europe then brought back to their country in Africa after the signing of a treaty; Black Americans united by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr under the banner of nonviolent civil disobedience; or the more confrontational and militant Black Panthers who promoted Black Power and pride; Black musicians, Black artists, Black freedom fighters; Black people.
The Black ocean is an epic and tragic saga, spread across several centuries and three continents that tells the story of the bonds and struggles fueled by slavery. It is displayed in 18 original appliquéd tapestries.
The city of Abomey, Benin, is located 100 miles from the coast. Once the main city of the old kingdom of Danxomé, defeated by the French in 1894, it is today the historical capital of Benin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The arts developed in the royal court there included weaving and “appliquéd” tapestries.
These tapestries were sewn together in traditional fabric made of dyed cotton, with all kinds of shapes and silhouette cut-outs composing a sort of fresco which originally evoked the stories of the kings and Fon people.
Some pieces include embroidered or sewn words. Different kinds of material are used, from traditional to more contemporary fabric, depending on what effect one wants to capture.
The city of Abomey has kept this local craft alive and several workshops perpetuate the tradition. Contemporary African artists of international renown, such as Romuald Hazoumé, Cyprien Tokoudagba, and Yves Apollinaire Kpede, have adapted and developed this technique.
William Wilson chose this medium for his 18 panel historical fresco partly in memory of his paternal grandmother, Hélène Kokwe d’Almeida. She was a cloth trader in Cotonou and a fellow member of the “Nana Benz” women’s guild, who developed a unique system of international business as early as the mid 19th century. At the time of her rare visits to France, William Wilson, as a child, was deeply charmed and overwhelmed by the bright colors of the fabrics she invariably brought with her
During the fall and winter of 2007 to end 2008, William Wilson stayed in Benin on six different occurences in order to work at Yves Apollinaire Kpede’s workshop. There he designed and supervised the making of the Black Ocean tapestries. They are the fruit of this union of the artist’s concept and design, and the artisans’ skilled and expert technique.
A book devoted to Black Ocean: L’Océan Noir has been published by Editions Gallimard-Giboulées. Paris France in April 2009.
It will also be used as a catalogue of the exhibition, displaying the entire collection, and fusing the artistic approach with a pedagogic one. With this work, William Wilson provides the historical background necessary to understand the full meaning and scope of the work.
Each tapestry is explained in detail and each symbol of the Adinkra Akan symbols represented is deciphered.
The accompanying catalogue is an integral part of the exhibit.
L’Océan Noir, the book, is available in French in bookstores and on the web.
Since 2009 the series has been exhibited in about 30 times around the Atlantic ocean. In France and Europe, (Bordeaux, Nantes, St Malo, Bologna, Geneva; Brussels, etc.) in West Africa (Lomé, Cotonou, Dakar, Bamako) and in the Americas: Usa, Brazil, Guyana, Haïti.