I’m watching a visiting artist, Lisa, in a Year 6 class with the teacher, Sally. Lisa has started a project on Wilberforce, making a model slave ship, an African village and percussion project. She kicks off asking who Wilberforce is and what slavery is. She introduces the task of making a slave ship which she’s going to show – at the end of the week they will have an impressive piece of work which ‘we can display’.
“We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc” she announces. Is there something a little inappropriate here? Would we hear a session in which we would hear about making concentration camps and gas chambers out of ‘pipe cleaners and mudroc’? Here’s a Blue Peter version I made earlier….
Lisa demos how to make a figure out of mudroc and pipe cleaners and takes questions as she goes. Little slave figures made out of pipe cleaners. “we don’t want arms sticking out, they should be down at the side”. She sets up a little production line by asking them to make 2 or 3 figures each. The class is set on a task of making about 50 – 75 different slave figures between them. “Mould the pipe cleaner, cut up mudroc, soak it, wrap it, repeat”. I wonder whether someone will point out that they could develop the production line and have one child specialising in moulding, another in cutting, another in soaking.
As pipe cleaner figures start emerging, a few laughs are generated by children – feet are either too bog or heads too small. “He’s hop-along… what’s happened to his arms… mine’s called Gordon, mine’s Edmund… this one’s paraplegic”. Groups work semi-independently, teacher is engaged in co-delivery of the session, moving from one table to another as Lisa does. “wrap the mudroc tightly around the skeleton otherwise it will fall off”. Perhaps it would have been better to make people figures who had homes first and who were then enforced into slavery – using the kids enthusiasm for the figures to its advantage rather than opt for making slaves from the beginning. The production line aspect of this approach ironically endorse the values which make the slave trade possible. We’re not making a character which has a personal connection to its sculptor. There’s one black lad in the class who is joining in with all the activities; a small crowd of white mud roc figures starts being assembled; some of which are splendid creations, others of which are not so splendid….
The project continues through the afternoon, with no time for play time which means for some kids that making slaves out of pipe cleaners is becoming a bit of drudgery. The figures are now to be painted black, to represent the figures seen in the picture at the start of the session. Blackened mudroc figures start to appear on table tops and are taken to the window ledge to dry; of course, they’re various in shape, size and coverage of black paint – but they are still faceless and the products of several cheerful production lines. No shades of black, brown or tone… End of class, and Lisa moves the furniture back to where it started before I entered the classroom. The figures are to be placed in the slave boat which is to be built tomorrow. So what do we know about slavery after all this?