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Artwork tackling slave trade returns to its roots as part of UAL project

Written by Anna Castleton
Published date 25 February 2016

Untitled (the second in the Korabra series) 1986 By Gavin Jantjes Collection of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum Image reproduced by kind permission of the artist

A series of artworks exploring the transatlantic slave trade will be reunited in the city where they were painted 30 years ago, as part of a project set to rewrite modern art history and show Britain’s national art collections in a new light.

The artworks, titled Korabra, by South African artist Gavin Jantjes will be shown from 26 February at the Herbert in Coventry, the very city in which Jantjes painted them in 1986 at the West Indian Association Club.

The work will be reunited for the first time in over 10 years and shown in the first exhibition of the Black Artists and Modernism project, led by University of the Arts London (UAL) in collaboration with Middlesex University.

The research project includes a three year art hunt spanning the length and breadth of the UK, investigating the hidden story of black British artists in modern art history and bringing new light to the UK’s national art collections.

Paul Goodwin, UAL Chair of Black Art and Design, Director of TrAIN, and Black Artists and Modernism Senior Research Fellow, comments: “This display, the first collaboration by the Black Artists and Modernism project with a museum collection, is significant for several reasons: first, it showcases the important work Gavin Jantjes made while on a residency at the West Indian Community Centre in Coventry in 1986 which illustrates how great art can arise from a local community context; second, the collaboration involved a thorough examination and re-writing of object labels and texts around this work in order to highlight its forgotten relationships to modernism and contemporary practice; and third, the Korabra paintings hanging in the gallery among the other works in the Herbert collection of modern art since 1900 will enable a new audience to engage with their power, beauty and continuing relevance to our present moment.”

He added: “The Korabra series raises questions about how painting can represent historically traumatic events like the slave trade. It is by using different artistic strategies that Jantjes is able to address a unique historical perspective while still speaking across borders of language, culture and nation.”

Until the nineteenth century, around 300 million people from Africa were seized from their homes, and exported to become slaves. This series of paintings explores the issues surrounding this trade of people, and the suffering and hopes of those involved. The paintings in the Korabra series depict brooding seas, darkened skies, ominous ships, and distorted human figures, in dramatic thick visceral paint applied with a palette knife.

The Korabra paintings will be on display at The Herbert from 26 February to 21 August. The Black Artists and Modernism research team will continue to work with The Herbert and other galleries and museums across the country to discover and explore more of the stories hidden in the UK’s national art collections over the next three years.

More about the artist

Gavin Jantjes was born in Cape Town. He studied fine art and graphic design at Michaelis School Fine Art, University of Cape Town in 1966-69, during the height of the struggles over the apartheid system. He arrived in Europe when it was struggling to accept the consequences of its own catastrophic experience of racism, genocide and war.

Jantjes moved to London in the early 1980s, where his print-works were celebrated for their focus on the absurdity as well as the brutal injustice of apartheid. With the Korabra paintings Jantjes “tackles the enormous task of trying to convey the depth of this catastrophic trade”. Jantjes commented: “Creativity is a process – the transformation of abstract ideas into material objects, via the application of the few skills one has – and learning of new skills.”

Read more about the exhibition at The Herbert 

Find out more about the Black Artists and Modernism research