10 Jul 2018

Walls Have Ears - Reflecting on Windrush

Guest blog post by community activist and freelance museum professional Charlotte Holmes.

Walls Have Ears: 400 Years of Change is an exhibition of contemporary portraiture from the Arts Council Collection that presents an alternative view of Aston Hall, in celebration of its 400th anniversary. This year also marks 70th anniversary of the iconic voyage of the Empire Windrush, which has come to symbolise post war Caribbean migration to the United Kingdom. In honour of these anniversaries, I recorded a podcast with community activist and elder Mrs McGhie Belgrave MBE and Linda Sutherland. 

Windrush Podcast, Episode 1

Download the transcription.

Windrush Podcast, Episode 2

Download the transcription.

In 1655, a year after Sir Thomas Holte, founder of Aston Hall,died and almost 400 years before the Empire Windrush set sail, the English invaded Jamaica overthrowing its Spanish colonial rulers. Under English, and then British, rule, plantation slavery dominated the island for almost 200 years. When slave ownership in British colonies was abolished in 1833, slave owners were paid compensation for their loss of property. The compensation was so great, that the British government had to take out a loan; British taxpayers only finished paying for this loan in 2015. 

For many of us questions unaccounted for labour and artistry are foremost in our mind when we visit a historic house. Who built this house, who crafted the furniture, who worked in this house… and where did the money come from?

Aston Hall’s link to empire is subtle, as far as I’m aware the Holte family did not own property or people in ‘the colonies’. However the building and collection still speak to us about role of race, gender, religion and class division during England and Britain’s colonial past.

Several of the artist in walls have ears are the children of the Windrush generation. Donald Rodney’s In the House of My Father was one of our favourite pieces in the exhibition. Rodney was born in Smethwick in 1961 to Jamaican parents. In 1965 Malcom X visited the street where Rodney lived.

Birmingham is known for its diversity, a city of a 1000 trades, where 108 languages are now spoke in our schools. As we walk through Aston Hall we notice scars from the battles of the English Civil War; however the streets of Birmingham have witnessed many battles around ideologies of religion, race, identity and belonging. It was in Birmingham, 50 years ago, that Enoch Powell gave the rivers of blood speech. It was in Birmingham that academics such as Stuart Hall challenged our thinking around race and identity, musicians such as Steel Pulse rocked (or reggaed) against racism, and Mr Sewa Singh Mandla successfully campaigned for a change in the law to allow Sikhs to wear a turban at work and school. 

The Windrush generation and their children have been in the press recently; despite being British, despite working hard and paying taxes, some have found themselves treated as illegal immigrants. Many Caribbean migrants carry the memory of centuries of exploitation in ‘the colonies’ along with the experience of decades of racial discrimination in the UK, to say this recent treatment adds insult to injury is quite an understatement. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mrs Mcghie Belgrave MBE, and so many like her, who said goodbye forever to loved ones, who came here, who ‘just got on with it’, who so sacrificed so much of their present, for our future.