On September 20, art celebrating the life of abolitionist and philosopher Ottobah Cugoano will be hung at the Anglican St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, in its narthex (antechamber).
Cugoano (1757- c1791) was born in West Africa, in what is modern-day Ghana, and, at 13, was kidnapped by slave traders and shipped to the West Indies. He was eventually sold to a plantation owner in Grenada.
He wrote Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and was active in the Sons of Africa group, which condemned slavery and campaigned for its abolition.
Cugoano was baptised at St James and the paintings will mark the 250th anniversary of his baptism.
The church commissioned TT artist Che Lovelace to paint them.
It contacted Lovelace through London agent Tommaso Corvi-Mora. Lovelace had recently held a solo exhibition at Corvi-Mora’s gallery in London.
“The church reached out directly to him to get in touch with me. I wasn’t aware that I was being considered for this project,” Lovelace said.
He was chosen by a committee, the church’s head and its congregation, and accepted the offer in January.
Lovelace believes geography and his being an artist focused on depicting Caribbean people and their lives in their spaces were deciding factors for the church.
His work about Cugoano’s life is extremely important, as it acknowledges histories that have not been discussed or told, he said. Even though he studied history at Queen’s Royal College, Port of Spain, Lovelace was surprised he did not know about Cugoano’s life, though he's well known among historians of slavery and abolition.
“A lot of us weren’t aware of this story, and this is a person who wrote a book about slavery, who was a prominent abolitionist, writing in newspapers at that time,” Lovelace said.
The unearthing of newer stories of what various people and communities did in historical happenings like the abolition movement were important, he added.
He sees this project as part of the ongoing wider reframing of Caribbean history and its personalities. In 2021, TT artists were commissioned by the National Museum Wales to produce work reframing the legacy of Lieut-Gen Sir Thomas Picton, formerly considered a British military hero, but better known in TT as governor and the torturer of a free coloured girl, Luisa Calderon.
Lovelace said the project stands inside the narrative of a society coming to terms with its past and being transparent with related information.
Being the first artist, and a Trinidadian, commissioned to help celebrate Cugoano’s life was a great feeling for him.
He sees this as a “healing gesture, a gesture of moving forward with a kind of honesty."
As much as the church has been implicated in atrocities in the past, people need to acknowledge the fact that institutions can transform, evolve and have a more honest future, Lovelace said.
He was open to his work being part of the reframing dialogue, saying it has represented Caribbean people and spaces, hopefully, with “a sense of dignity.”
This kind of work and discussion help “to carry the region forward in a post-colonial Western world where depictions of non-European people tended to be stereotyped and racist,” he said.
Part of correcting that was an honest depiction of who Caribbean people are, and Lovelace believes he has a part to play in doing so.
“If that comes in a historical project like this, or honouring a historical personality who is part of that story, then I am very open to that. But I feel like, regardless, my work is carrying on a kind of tradition which is maybe placing us in a new light.”
Four separate paintings will hang in the church’s narthex, installed on four panels.
Giving an idea of what the paintings will be like without revealing too much, Lovelace said they depict his interpretation of the idea of baptism, of going through an experience and coming out on the other side more enlightened.
“I try not to be too obvious or literal. There is water, music, bodies and nature in the paintings,” he added.
The church placed no restrictions or hard guidelines on how to interpret it, he said.
“They saw in my work the things that drew them toward my practice, and they felt it was enough to give me free rein as to how I wanted to depict this idea.”
When he had completed 50-60 per cent of the project, Lovelace shared it with the church and its organisers, and they responded positively to his treatment of the subject.
He is expected to attend the unveiling on September 20. There will be other activities commemorating Cugoano’s life from August 20-September 20.
Being the artist whom the church contacted showed Lovelace TT’s creative people need to keep working and the country needs to be honest about the talented people it has.
He said if TT took creative talent seriously, other people and organisations would take the country more seriously, more projects like these would land on its doorstep, and TT would become part of the world on another level.
He added that he was proud of having been chosen, as he's made his mark on the art world from TT.