An artistic exploration of Yorkshire's black history

17/11/2022

Elena Savvas (she/they) explores Heritage Corner Community's Yorkshire Black History Walks.

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Image by Ana Andries

By Elena Savvas

Heritage Corner is a group of creatives that undertake hugely important work in unveiling and spotlighting Black history, heritage, and art in Yorkshire, founded by Joe Williams. They work with local communities and aspiring artists, and their projects are aimed at people of all ages, with a common goal to empower and inform.

According to their website, on the first Saturday of every month, Heritage Corner run guided Black History Walks around Leeds, where walkers are joined by a cast of historical figures that animate the city's hidden narratives connected to ancient Africa and its history. The idea was devised by Williams in 2009 for the Leeds Bi-centenary Transformation Project, which commemorated the abolition of the 1807 Slave-Trade Act. From this, Heritage Corner was born in 2014, and has continued to make progress as a grassroots community, but also as an accredited academic institution. The project is supported by the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Trinity University, so that on-campus history is not overlooked.

The walk itself transcends historical boundaries, beginning with a ponder upon the magnitude of the University of Leeds Parkinson Building, as walkers and teachers explore the influences and implications of the imposing Greek-revival architecture. The trail passes through Textile Court, allowing for an important recognition of cloth and botanical trade, as listeners dwell on the industry's complex and tyrannical histories. Walkers don't miss out on natural encounters either, as the tour does not exclude nature's beauty and history in its examinations of the city and campus. Observations on the relationship between man-made history and natural history can be made in tandem with a glance at the sculptural weavings of Mitzi Cunliffe's sculpture Man-Made Fibres (1955). Ancient and contemporary histories are intertwined throughout. Past walkers quote the tour as "resplendent with character", "well researched", and innovative in the use of performance and characterisation to "bring history to life". Heritage Corner's close and delicate focus on the city's architectural, literary and artistic histories is a triumph within itself when paired against consumerist and touristic city tours. But their unfeigned ingenuity is in "active-learning" neglected history.

The walks are organised to foreground "positive history", which resonates as deeply important in a culture that has become desensitised to images of brutality and pain, giving in to a history of cultural consumption of Black suffering as a spectacle or entertainment [skindeepmag.com/ articles/black-pain-as-entertainment-suffering- spectacle-colonial-violence]. Black and African presence in Yorkshire is told through stories that centre pioneers, leaders, and creatives, such as that of Nesyamun the Mummy found in Leeds Museum, Ethiopian royalty with connections to Queen Victoria, the Queen of Sheba, David Oluwale, Olaudah Equiano, or the Northern British Abolitionist Movement. In addition, the tours prove how powerful the arts are in teaching, understanding, and curating history. Re-telling factual histories through narrative re-enactments allows for a reanimation of forgotten knowledge, and acts as a means of letting listeners create their own relationships to particular narratives through their experiences of the art in question.

Notably, Heritage Corner's use of artistic conventions does not stop at re-enactments or ventures into Art History, but includes the creation of poems, dances, and more. Black creatives of the Geraldine Connor Foundation, a charity that promotes the use of the arts to bring communities together, have curated a set of artistic responses to the work of Heritage Corner, entitled 'New Responses'. Rheima Robinson's poetic piece entitled 'Black Is...' exemplifies the artistic impact of the Leeds Black History Walk, as Robinson expresses: ]we are children of legacy, from those who gave gold to the poor, and traded salt from the seas that we owned, in the cities that we built. Black is... the keeper of knowledge.' When relaying her experience of the Leeds Black History Walk, Robinson states that 'the likelihood of history being passed on and shared through art feels more tangible and more genuine than a textbook.' This aligns with the commitment that the organisation has to change the stereotypes associated with the teaching of African History. See the video produced by the Geraldine Connor Foundation where Rheima talks more about her response (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFKSyie3YCY).

In The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), Olaudah Equiano, a writer spotlighted by Heritage Corner, recalls his curiosity to read and disappointment when talking to a book in the hope that it would answer him, but hearing nothing in response. Perhaps this autobiographical segment speaks to us in modernity, as Black communities wish for adequate inclusion in history and academia, and perhaps the Heritage Corner community are amongst those finally answering Equiano's plea.

Heritage Corner's Yorkshire Black History Walks are usually 2 hours followed by discussion time. They continue to run no matter the weather, and are wheelchair accessible.

To find out more, check out their website:
heritagecornerleeds. com/leeds-black-history-walk