Project essay by Kelsey Corbett
I am a child of colonialism several times over. Born in Namibia to a South African father and an American mother, my existence holds within it several cross-currents of empire. It was colonial conquest that first brought my father’s ancestors from Britain and Holland to South Africa, where they became farmers and statesmen. On the American side, we are descended from a European farmer and a Cherokee woman – their union embodying the colonial dynamics from another continent of British conquest. My parents’ work as human rights lawyers is what brought them together from such distant birthplaces and their presence in Namibia is tied up in that country’s struggle for independence from an apartheid South African government.
This family history is something that must be actively reckoned with and I do not intend for the phrase “farmers and statesmen” to elide the fact that the land they farmed was taken by force from indigenous populations and that those they governed had not granted consent. Similarly, there is a clear power imbalance at play between a farmer descended from European colonists and a Native American woman whose people were being confined to reservations. I myself was born into that heady post-independence moment in Namibia when people from all backgrounds were united by their jubilant optimism for a brighter future. But the fact does not escape me that this hard-won freedom we were celebrating was from people with whom I share a common ancestry.
The Sun Never Sets project is not about me and this potted genealogical history serves only to demonstrate how inextricably implicated we are as individuals in the sweeping tides of colonialism. These threads of history weave a tangled web and the aftermath of empire runs deep, sending reverberations through our present in ways both evident and obscure. Without undermining the specific circumstances surrounding David Lammy’s powerful 2018 Windrush speech, it is relevant to note that his resounding “I am here because you were there” operates in several directions. The ships that brought enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and North America to fuel the growth of a capitalist economy based on sugar, cotton and other goods also took British explorers, colonists, soldiers and farmers to all corners of the empire. The forcible colonisation, subjugation and enslavement of indigenous peoples cannot be compared with the choice to participate in colonial enterprise (or even the exportation of criminals and “undesirables” from Britain to far-flung colonies) and yet it is relevant to note how this movement redistributed populations across the world in ways that shape our communities to this day.
The Sun Never Sets is conceived as an open-ended proposition rather than a definitive statement, an invitation to curators and artists and viewers alike to consider how the ramifications of empire have played out in their own lives and work. It is only by grappling with the painful truths of our past and present that we can begin to make positive strides. And, within this context, it feels important to acknowledge my own starting subject position. We all have one; it is the matrix of beliefs and values and privileges that inform how we view the world and, in turn, how the world views us. I am aware of the inherent pitfalls, the dangers of reinscribing entrenched power dynamics or past elisions. Truth be told, sometimes the fear of getting it wrong gives me sleepless nights. Addressing these fraught histories is complicated, but to avoid complication is to close one’s eyes to reality.
This is much easier to do from the heart of empire, where one is insulated from the harsh realities and grievous harms perpetuated in the name of king and country. Over the course of the next year, we invite you to get uncomfortable with us as we face up to the aftermath of this history, considering the implications of empire from the perspectives of its former colonies. The foundational structure of The Sun Never Sets is conceived as a journey around the globe, virtually visiting the many countries that were implicated in the British Empire. However, we are not invited as gawking tourists, but rather to bear witness to their histories and grapple with the implications these have for the present and future. Curators, artists and writers from the various regions will act as guides and interlocutors, decentring empirical assumptions in favour of peripheral perspectives and alternative forms of knowledge. Intended to form a rich tapestry of intersecting (and even contradictory) ideas, the scope and scale of this undertaking means that it is necessarily partial and incomplete, but we hope that it will serve as a catalyst to your own research and reckoning.
Kelsey Corbett is the project curator of The Sun Never Sets and the Head of Research and Programme Curator at Unit London. Her research interests include post-colonialism and the ways in which artworks and display strategies can productively engage with painful histories. Prior to this, she worked in research and curatorial roles at Thaddaeus Ropac, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and interned at Tate Modern, London.