Using street art to help fight modern slavery

The University of Nottingham launched the first ever major collection of murals focussing on slavery and the anti-slavery movement, on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (2 December).

Murals are a common tool in the fight against slavery, but their ephemeral nature means that that have a limited lifespan. The ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ project has created the first large-scale collection of antislavery murals. It brings together both interior and exterior murals from the 1920s through to present day.

By evaluating how different groups have used murals about the antislavery past for protest and community activism, the archive aims to encourage contemporary antislavery activists to use this form of community artwork to raise awareness and build city-wide “slavery-free community” campaigns.

 Created by researcher Hannah Jeffery, the archive currently features murals of historical American abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey and Nathaniel Turner. It also includes murals that use the visual iconography of slavery and antislavery. Going forward it will expand to include murals about historical antislavery from the UK and around the world, and also begin to feature new murals that focus on the contemporary movement against slavery and human trafficking.

Hannah said: “In creating this archive, I wanted to establish a sense of permanence for these murals to ensure they remain visible in the historical protest narrative, even if erased from their physical location.

“Two of the main purposes of the archive are to show how these artworks have long been protest tools to tell forgotten antislavery stories for the purpose of galvanizing community activism, and also to highlight lessons we can learn and apply to murals today that raise awareness of contemporary slavery and human trafficking.”

Telling the stories of the past

The public-facing archive will also be used as an education tool for undergraduate and postgraduate study as well as for non-governmental organisations.

Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the University’s Rights Lab and a co-investigator on the Antislavery Usable Past project, said: “Public murals tell stories of the past and imagine community futures. They have turned two of history’s most famous barriers into two of the world’s largest canvases: the Berlin Wall, which had artwork covering one side, and Belfast’s peace lines on the Falls Road, which has a patchwork of political murals. In the United States, murals adorn the walls of historically black neighbourhoods in the thousands, narrating African American history from slavery to the election of the first black president.

“What Hannah has done is remarkable; this is the first major collection of this important street art to focus on the memory of slavery and antislavery. Though initially cherished, these murals are often neglected or destroyed. In some cases, the photographs in this archive are our only record of their existence. We see the abolitionists emerge from America’s walls as the forbears to 20th-century social justice movements and a usable past for contemporary activism.”

To find out more about the archive visit antislavery.ac.uk/murals

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