Arts Ambassador and BA International Politics student Shanelle Webb sat down with acclaimed movement and sound artist Elaine Mitchener following her performance of SWEET TOOTH and a panel discussion to explore the work’s historical and contemporary values. “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought but not that we were brave.” William Prescott, 1937 (former slave). Image Credit: Brian Roberts.
SWEET TOOTH is the latest work by Mitchener and marks the culmination of five years’ research into our love of sugar and the historical links between the UK sugar industry and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This arresting new performance premiered at Bluecoat Liverpool, London and in Southampton, as part of John Hansard Gallery’s preview programme Sampler at Studio 144 in February 2018.
Shanelle Webb: What made you decide to make this piece? Was it an experience you had that was a turning point or was it something you had always wanted to do?
Elaine Mitchener: SWEET TOOTH was an idea that I had floating for some time and then when my father died I thought about things we shared in common and it was sugar. I had given him some tablet, which is a Scottish sweet that is really addictive, and we both loved it, even though it was dreadful for our teeth! I then started to think about how sugar dominates our culture, its devastating effects and it’s origins. Although we studied the sugar trade at school I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of British history and the impact of that, and what it meant in terms of opening the channel from the Caribbean to the UK.
It’s realising that it is through colonialism and enslavement of West Africans who were brought through the middle passage to the Caribbean to make this substance, to satisfy the greed of not only British people, but throughout Europe. As a result, sugar became a widely used substance, and they had to keep making it, so you had to keep replenishing slaves, so it was supply and demand. So that’s how the project started, a kernel of an idea in the back of my head.
SW: Maybe the situation with your father was a turning point?
EM: It provided the impetus to get on with it. I would have done it but perhaps not as focused. I realised it was a serious topic that needed to be tackled and addressed, as well as the legacy and how it’s affected the relationships between Britain and the Caribbean, especially today with the whole idea of ‘feeling British’, and what does that mean, and people are speaking about immigrants and the EU etc, so I really wanted to tackle that.
SW: How did you find the task of telling these stories, as well as meeting with academics to ensure validity (in terms of emotional and physical labour)?
EM: It was hard, it was a challenge to stay focused and find the information and not feel overwhelmed about all the information out there. My challenge was how I was going to present the work – I was not going to focus on the whole history of slavery – I couldn’t do it. Then I thought, what aspect of it can I do? And then I thought maybe I can’t zone in so much, I’m just going to, not keep it general, but take it as a personal experience, one that was a universal experience.
At the start of the research I realised I needed to check my facts and required the expertise of an historical consultant. That’s when Christer Petley became involved.
Christer’s been a brilliant and immensely generous in allowing me to use his research material and appropriating some of that for use within the piece. His involvement has been invaluable in helping me identify certain material that I would not have come across had I not had some consultancy.
And it’s the struggle, the struggle and challenges of finding a right way of balance, and how to present it, and with working with musicians and really tackling these subjects and finding ways to musically express it has been so rewarding – hard, upsetting but rewarding in the end.
SW: I found it interesting that you both said you were apprehensive to mention the slave owner story, as I thought it was right to, and very relevant. I don’t feel you telling his story glamorised or glorified it in any way, I felt it was necessary to understand the mind-set to take ownership of people and treat them that way.
EM: I’m really pleased you said that because that was exactly what I wanted to do and that’s why I spoke to Christer about it in terms of finding the right way to present it. I feel we presented Simon Taylor [the slave owner] that way. I didn’t want to give Taylor the pivotal moment, because he isn’t important – he is important in terms of the material and what happened, but yes, you’re right, what mind-set, what kind of person must you be? Also, he had relatives, he lived, he had friends, and some people would have thought he’s a nice guy. And it’s easy to think of slave-owners as these horrible people, but there are people like that all around us, and we can be like that and that was my point.
SW: What would you say you learned from this experience? What were the most interesting or shocking things you learned?
EM: Oh man – very quickly I can say I’m always discovering something. For example, in the talk I mentioned nursing someone else’s child, at the expense of your own; that women were subjected to horrific sexual abuse; children were sexually abused, colourism etc., and all those things permeate and reverberate right until now, all around the world; and that’s why I mentioned it, to acknowledge what this has done. I could have been more explicit and gone further. It’s important for us all to understand our history.
SW: I think the colourism aspect is especially relevant today, actually, in all communities but especially the black community, where the lighter you are or the less ‘kinky’ your hair the more attractive you are. There have been countless times where I’ve been told I’m more attractive for my lighter skin or hair and it’s disgusting.
EM: Yes, and people don’t realise it holds them back. When someone says that, ask them ‘Why and why do you think that?’ What’s more important is who you are as a person. Not the colour of your skin. It saddens me that this conversation and debate is still happening now, as it was the same when I was younger.
SW: I found the listing of names of those people sold into the slave trade particularly harrowing and poignant.
EM: [NAMES] is challenging because it drives home the fact these people existed. And when I hear their names and what they did, and how they were valued by someone else, it did make me question my self-worth and values. I wanted to honour these people who lived lives of suffering and in spite of that had such strength and courage to create a new culture of their own, the legacy of which can be seen in the the Caribbean today and of course in the UK within African-Caribbean society.
SW: Thank you for your time!
EM: You’re welcome
Sweet Tooth credits:
- Concept, Direction & Music: Elaine Mitchener
- Movement Direction: Dam Van Huynh
- Historical Consultant: Christer Petley
- Devised and performed by: Elaine Mitchener, Sylvia Hallett, Mark Sanders, Jason Yarde
SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England. Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Museum of London Docklands, Edge Hill University, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.
For more information on the development of SWEET TOOTH with historian Dr Christer Petley visit https://www.southampton.ac.uk/uni-life/arts/research-projects/sweet-tooth.page
Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.