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Featured Article: Arrjan and the Story of the Short Dress

By Dr Michael Asbury

Upon his arrival in London where Arrjan came to spend some time within the context of an artist residency at Chelsea College of Arts and the research centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN), I introduced him to the curator Paul Goodwin, who has recently been appointed TrAIN’s new director. Having explained to Paul that Arrjan had been interested in the themes of slavery, its ships, their routes, and the iconography of the triangular trade, the curator suggested that the artist should visit the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.I was somewhat surprised therefore upon visiting Arrjan recently in Rio that the most prominent icon that dominates his recent paintings was the image of the Cutty Sark, a ship that stands, recently restored, in a dry dock marking the centre of that London neighbourhood. The ship however was never directly involved with the slave trade itself, having been constructed in 1869 for the purpose of importing tea from the far east.

I posed this question to Arrjan who proceeded to speak about his desire not so much to represent that particular historical period but to compose anachronistic imagery that invoked the traces, the scars, that is to say, the persistence of the legacy of slavery to this day. The Cutty Sark thus stood within his canvases as a general vessel but also as an icon of globalised trade, one that brings the past into confrontation with the present. The choice in this sense seems very pertinent indeed, both in terms of the history of the ship but also as far as the etymology of the ship’s name is concerned.

The Cutty Sark was in its time at the cutting edge of technology being the fastest ship but also the last of its type, the clipper, having been built at the moment in which steam boats were gradually replacing sail ships. Another example of a clipper, built at the same time and place as the Cutty Sark, still survives in Adelaide in Australia, one upside down in relation to the other so to speak, both holding the circumference of the globe on its extreme points. In fact, a third ship remains in ruins off the shores of Chile, its skeleton marks a triangle in relation to the other two and so metaphorically invokes the expansion of the trade routes from the slave trade to tea and eventually the export of prisoners to the far away lands of Australia, while (according to conventional cartography) placing the British example at its pinnacle.

In this sense, it is also interesting to note that the art college where Arrjan was housed during his stay in London, together with Tate Britain across the road, occupy the site in which Milbank Prison once stood, from where the prisoners were carried from the shores of the river Thames to the penal colony on the other side of the globe.

The origins of the name Cutty Sark are equally interesting in terms of the themes that Arrjan is developing in these paintings. The name, like the ship that was constructed on the Clyde, has Scottish origins. It is taken from, Tam O’ Shanter, a long narrative poem by Robert Burns, a poet that has become almost synonymous with Scottish nationalism. While the ship is a composite structure with its steel frame and wooden hull, the poem is a hybrid of Scotts dialect and English. The name Cutty Sark translates from Scotts to English as ‘short skirt’ and in the poem stands as the nickname for a witch, Nannie, who chases the main character Tam O’ Shanter, a drunk who as he rides his horse home after a night of alcoholic excess at a public house, witnesses a devilish scene of witches dancing around a church ablaze.

If we think of the relationship, the very problematic relationship, between the declaration of the republic and the abolition of slavery in Brazil, which took place in consecutive years (1888 and 1889), Burns himself stands as an interesting parallel, being as he is the Scottish national poet who during his lifetime worked as an accountant within the context of the slave trade in Jamaica. He is thus generally credited to have composed the lyrics to the proto-abolitionist poem a slave’s lament of 1792: ‘It was in Sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall / For the lands of Virginia-ginia-O / Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more / And alas, I am weary, weary O.

Tuesday 08 December, 2015