Oct 2010 Journal
Art Notes (review)
It is just a single exhibit within a one-room installation in the British Museum but it sounds a powerful historical message. Akan Drum: The Drummer is Calling Me is curated by playwright and broadcaster Bonnie Greer, whose empathetic installation is the story of the music of the transatlantic slave trade. The drum itself, clad in deerskin, is now a silent witness to its own development of African-American music and its effect on the contemporary musical scene. The Akan Drum is considered one of the British Museum’s most fascinating pieces as well as its oldest African-American object.
The drum was first introduced to the slave ships from west Africa to Virginia in about 1735. Slaves were kept below deck in disgusting conditions from which up to 20 per cent died before reaching shore. In the belief that fresh air would be good for them, the slaves were brought up to deck and made to dance to its rhythm in a process known as ‘dancing the slaves’, although they were not allowed to own a drum, or anything else, themselves. The Akan comprise 45 smaller ethnic groups in present-day Ghana.
The right-hand wall of the installation is devoted to the trafficking of west African slaves to the Colony of Virginia and all their ensuing suffering and displacement. On the left wall you read the story of their music. It is accompanied by large video footage of titans like Martin Luther King, jazz giants like Miles Davis, and pop and rock stars like Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Shakira, all of whom can trace their influences back to the slave experience. In fact, from the provenance of the Akan Drum we discover the massive influence of African and African-American music on most popular music from the twentieth century onwards, including jazz, blues, R&B, pop, ballad, reggae, hip hop and rock ’n’ roll. Slaves would call to each on the plantations in what became known as call and response; this developed into gospel, protest music, blues, tap, etc. Even klezmer, whose repressive roots were planted in the shtetls and ghettoes of middle Europe, is said to have felt its influence. The drum sometimes incited rebellion on the plantations, particularly one in 1739 in Georgia, from which it was subsequently banned.
London’s Ben Uri Gallery has bought a watercolour of the Second World War, Interrogation, by German artist George Grosz, who challenged Germany’s decadence in the 1920s by graffiti art, which was later deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. Grosz, not himself Jewish, is considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists, who used graphic satire as a political challenge.
Daphne Todd has won this year’s £25,000 BP Portrait Award for a painting of her dead mother, having pipped to the post a record 2,177 international applicants. She describes her work, Last Portrait of Mother, as ‘a striking image - paintings of dead people are always affecting’. Others who painted death include Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet and Lucian Freud.