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22 Dec 2017

The Ghost of Christendom by Keith Piper

In December it feels inevitable that Christmas will impact most of the population in some way or another. Keith Piper’s Ghost of Christendom explores the complex connections between Christianity, slavery and the British Empire. Made up of 18 framed sections of computer montage images printed on white laser paper, this work was originally displayed at the Ikon gallery in the exhibition ‘A Ship Called Jesus’ in 1991. It had been shown there above a grave of broken glass opposite a headstone inscribed with an account of the 1564 slave-trade voyage by Elizabeth 1’s envoy John Hawkins.

Images in the montage include a photograph of the artists own feet, the infamous illustration of enslaved people as cargo on a slave ship published by T. Clarkson in 1808; flames and chains. The image imitates stain glass and the crucifix shape cements the reference to artwork seen in churches, particularly depictions of Jesus’s crucifixion.

The shards of a shattered mirror, which form the headstone and a grave in the original display, commemorated the unnamed millions of the Middle Passage, a message which is reinforced by the layering of the Clarkson illustration over the ripples of water, and flames.

Computer Montage - The Ghosts of Christendom by Keith Piper

This piece was initially proposed as a part of a storyline on missionary activity during the British Empire. Christianity and religion in general has a very interesting role in the narrative of colonisation, paving the way or else instigating the travel and settlement integral in the colonisation process. Yet simultaneously religions in general and Christianity in particular played a huge part in the abolition movements and creating systems in which enslaved populations and indigenous peoples were able to gain education and strength and create new communities and support structures.

The Missionary narrative was not developed fully for the gallery due to issues of space; however this artwork was kept to be presented as the centre piece on the salon hang regarding representation and self-representation. Keith Piper as Birmingham born and raised artist, who addresses themes of post-colonial identities and Empirical legacy was an appropriate choice, and this evocative and multi layered piece felt like a captivating central point.

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition