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  • Tracing Transatlantic SlaveryIn Kimathi Donkor's UK Diaspora
  • Celeste-Marie Bernier (bio)

When people think of enslavement often art is the last thing on anyone's mind," declares black British artist, Kimathi Donkor. While taking note of the social, historical, and ideological forces integral to any investigation into transatlantic slavery as a centuries-long practice for which "the facts and figures of shipping, economics, politics, and war" are typically the heart of the matter, Donkor remains insistent: "Art has a very important role in the way we can think about this history." He maintains that "one of the key ways the exploitation of forced labor was laundered was through the creation of works of art, often to glorify the very people who had been involved in the atrocities." Donkor refuses to shy away from the stark reality that the "profits of slave trading and slavery resulted in money spent commissioning art works that ended up on walls and in the very architecture itself."1

A politically radical and aesthetically experimental painter and mixed-media assemblage artist, Donkor's hard-hitting subject matter comes to life via a multifaceted use of mythology, symbolism, and allegory. All too aware of the ways in which a [End Page 108]

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Kimathi Donkor, Drake-u-liar, from UK Diaspora series, 2007. Mixed media on canvas, 54 x 45 x 6 cm.

Courtesy the artist and International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, UK. © Kimathi Donkor

[End Page 109] history of transatlantic slavery provided the capital that galvanized white Western art systems of patronage, collection, and exhibition, Donkor's bodies of work assume center stage in powerful relation to centuries-long traditions of official art history, in general, and European portraiture, in particular.2 Self-reflexively experimental, his mixed-media assemblages and paintings expose the ways in which nationally sanctioned and officially commissioned portraits of white monarchical rulers and political leaders typically exalted their subjects as visual embodiments of Christian beliefs, civilized culture, and capital accumulation in the service of a society that was for whites only. Donkor testifies to his lifelong commitment to representing black women, men, and children as the appropriate subjects of fine art at the same time that he remains dedicated to restoring the history of the transatlantic trade as fundamental to European art history.

As a painter and artist who has not only traveled widely throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and South America but whose personal history comes to life in the tessellated relationships produced by "family connections in Jamaica, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana," Donkor is committed to doing justice to black lives lived across national, social, political, and cultural divides yet repeatedly considered beyond the pale of Western art traditions, no less than official history and national memory.3 Cutting to the heart of the afterlife and afterdeath of transatlantic slavery in the historic and ongoing displacements, dislocations, and dispersals confronting black peoples across the diaspora, Donkor was inspired to create his mixed-media assemblage UK Diaspora (2007) in the eye of the storm regarding nationwide commemorations of the two-hundred-year anniversary of abolitionism in Britain in 2007.

Recognizing that the "British state was going to make a strong effort to aggrandize itself," Donkor's works betray his determination to "counteract what I knew would be nationalistic and jingoistic and backslapping."4 He sought to expose national strategies of memorialization that remain invested in a politicization of history and have enduring implications for race and class dynamics in contemporary society. At war against the ideological and aesthetic stranglehold exerted by a white Western art historical tradition, Donkor's UK Diaspora, a multifaceted and multilayered work that has recently been acquired for the International Slavery Museum's permanent collection and was exhibited for their ten-year anniversary beginning in August 2017, bears witness to his no-holds-barred exploration of the inhumanity of the trade and of the role officially sanctioned artworks continue to play in perpetuating national amnesia by simultaneously whitewashing out of existence transatlantic slavery and art by black peoples. Black agency over and above white atrocity ultimately remains the defining feature of Donkor's oeuvre. His is a determination to do justice to...


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