The descendant of a family enslaved by a British plantation owner in Jamaica has been invited to take part in an art project at a private members’ club in London that is delving into its own history and connection to slavery.
The House of St Barnabas, which was rebuilt by Richard Beckford, a Bristol MP who enslaved hundreds of people and owned more than 3,650 hectares (9,000 acres) of land in Jamaica, has invited the musician and artist Gaika to create a work that helps “address the house’s links to slavery”.
Timed to coincide with Black History Month, Flight Recorder is inspired by aircraft blackbox recorders and will make sounds when people interact with it. The sounds it creates will be recorded and sampled by Gaika, who will craft a release based on the results and perform a live concert at the Soho club later in the year.
Gaika said he hoped the project started a conversation about slavery in the UK.
“It’s as if we’re supposed to not talk about slavery and if we do, we run the risk of being called divisive,” says Gaika. “We need to actually discuss these things or go further and try and remedy some of the inequalities or imbalances. What I want is to try and tip the scales back a little bit.”
Gaika’s own family were enslaved by Beckford on his properties in Westmoreland, Jamaica, as were the ancestors of the House of St Barnabas’s director of engagement, Gillian Jackson, who connected the club with the artist.
Jackson said: “My own connection highlights the complexities within this issue but also it shows the need for us to put this in the public forum for discussion and honest reflection.
“Our colonial past is very much part of the DNA of the city, but because the way we tell history has been shaped by one often very non-diverse group, we don’t think about how that is starting to shift.”
Housed in one room of St Barnabas in Greek Street, Flight Recorder is described as a “functional sculpture” by Gaika. It will play music and video but can also be turned into a DIY recording studio into which instruments can be plugged and recorded.
Gaika, who has released records on Warp and is known for a sound he describes as “black music with all the sex left in it and all the bullshit maths taken out”, said the work was tapping into a wider debate about colonialism, empire and its legacy in the UK.
“With the work that I’m trying to do it’s to provoke people or to make them upset. I’m not really bothered about trying to make people like me or dislike me; if anything it is to try and tell the truth,” he said.
Flight Recorder will be open to members of the public through pre-booked tours and the House of Barnabas is encouraging those with connections to Beckford to visit.
Beckford’s father was Alderman William Beckford, the lord mayor of London, and his son was educated at Oxford University. He went on to become “one of the biggest planters in Jamaica”, according to the University College London, which said he “owned” 910 people in 1754. In the same year, he acquired the lease for St Barnabas, a Soho institution which became a homelessness charity in the mid-1800s.
Now functioning as a social enterprise members’ club and employment academy, the House of St Barnabas is the latest British institution to investigate its own links to slavery. Tate, which has four galleries, looked into its connections with slavery in 2019, finding that the Tate & Lyle firm was connected to the trade in “less direct but fundamental ways”.
In July, the Guardian commissioned research that will look into connections between transatlantic slavery and John Edward Taylor, the journalist who founded the Manchester Guardian in 1821.
• Flight Recorder will be open until December 2020.