I’m watching a visiting artist, Lisa, in a Year 6 class with the teacher, Sally, present one Friday afternoon. Lisa has started a project on Wilberforce, making a model slave ship, an African village and delivering a percussion project. She kicks off asking who Wilberforce is and what slavery is.
She introduces the task of making a slave ship which the class will show at the end of the week as part of an impressive piece of work. “We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc” she announces.
Lisa demonstrates how to make a figure out of mudroc and pipe cleaners and takes questions as she goes. Little slave figures made from pipe cleaners. “We don’t want arms sticking out, they should be down at the side”. She sets up a little production line by asking them to make 2 or 3 figures each. The class is set on a task of making about 50 – 75 different slave figures between them. “Mould the pipe cleaner, cut up mudroc, soak it, wrap it, repeat”.
As pipe cleaner figures start emerging, a few laughs are generated by children – feet are either too big or heads too small. “He’s hop-along… what’s happened to his arms… mine’s called Gordon, mine’s Edmund… this one’s paraplegic”.
Groups work semi-independently, Sally the teacher is engaged in co-delivery of the session, moving from one table to another as Lisa does. “Wrap the mudroc tightly around the skeleton otherwise it will fall off”. Perhaps it would have been closer to the truth to make people figures who had homes first and who were then enforced into slavery – channelling the pupil’s enthusiasm for the figures to its advantage rather than opt for making slaves from the beginning.
The production line aspect of this approach echoes the values which make the slave trade possible. We’re not making a character which has a personal connection to its sculptor. There’s one black lad in the class who is joining in with all the activities; a small crowd of white mud roc figures starts being assembled; some of which are splendid creations, others of which are not so splendid….
The project continues through the afternoon, with no time for play time which means for some pupils that making slaves out of pipe cleaners is becoming a bit of drudgery. The figures are now to be painted black, to represent the figures seen in the picture at the start of the session.
Blackened mudroc figures start to appear on tabletops and are taken to the window ledge to dry; of course, they’re various in shape, size and coverage of black paint – but they are still faceless and the products of several cheerful production lines. No shades of black, brown or tone… End of class, and Lisa moves the furniture back to where it started before I entered the classroom.
The figures are to be placed in the slave boat which is to be built tomorrow.
This classroom observation opened up some key questions about how we approach the histories of the slave trade, not the least of them being how we can provide a different educational perspective which doesn’t rely on ‘pipe cleaners and mudroc’ to make its point.
Fortunately, The World Reimagined progamme does exactly that. You can find more on their learning resources here.
(Photo credit: The World Reimagined Sculpture Trails: 103 unique globes across the UK exploring the history, legacy and future of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans through the work of incredible artists.)
The Mighty Creatives staff team are going to support the campaign by taking part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on the 5th October. If you want to join us on the day and take a vow of silence, then please check out the campaign here.
Of if the thought of donating your silence for 24 hours is really too much, then you can donate your hard-earned disposable income here.
Or if neither of these is possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcome and appreciated.
So… come and help me to shut up, once and for all. You know you want to.