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New exhibition reinterpreting colonial records from Bodleian archive opens in Weston Library

A new exhibition has opened in Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall as part of a collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries and British opera singer Peter Brathwaite. The collection aims to provide audiences with a humanising perspective on history, utilising Brathwaite’s own family history as both enslaved people and slave owners, and will be open until 7th April. 

The theme of the collection is “Mischief in the Archives,” referencing the common label “mischievous” used for enslaved individuals who attempted to resist oppression and assert their humanity. To symbolise this visually, Brathwaite created a ceremonial costume depicting the trickster god in Caribbean folklore, which represents “his own role in the story.” 

During a previous talk in November as part of the We Are Our History conversations, Brathwaite revealed that using the Bodleian’s collections, he was able to trace back his family history. He found his roots in the British-owned Codrington plantations in Barbados, where some of his ancestors were slave traders and others enslaved.

This exhibit is the culmination of that research, juxtaposing content from the Bodleian archives against artefacts from Brathwaite’s own family collection. It aims to “challenge preconceived racialised narratives the archives have long muted,” bringing to life names only remembered in colonial records and restoring a human aspect to them.

Brathwaite noted that the work was “pain-staking,” and that the “visceral violence” in the historic papers was often a struggle to handle, but it was worth it in light of the “little nuggets” he could dig out from the collections. “If you move away from the data, you can find the people behind the numbers.”

The items displayed include Barbados plantation accounts and letters from John Brathwaite, the owner of a plantation, as well as objects belonging to Addo Brathwaite, Peter’s fourth great-grandfather and freed slave originally from Ghana. According to Jasdeep Singh, who leads We Are Our History, the creation of this “counter-archive” aims to “take a fresh look at the imbalance of [the Bodleian’s] collections […] and the impact of the colonial era in the libraries.” 

Singh said, “By sharing this platform with Peter to engage critically with our collections, this display embodies our commitment through the We Are Our History Project to learn, adapt and represent overlooked stories and experiences within our archives.” 

Brathwaite is known for his work in opera, having sung for groups including the English National Opera, Danish National Opera, and Philharmonie de Paris. He also published a work titled “Rediscovering Black Portraiture” in April 2023, a collection of portrait recreations which “reclaims Black history and art.”

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