Living in the Wake of the Lust For Sugar – Museum of London Docklands, London

Reviewer: Harry Conway

Writer and Director: Elsa James

Artist Elsa James was invited to create this seven-minute film as a response to the London, Sugar & Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands, an exhibition that museum figures on the night were quick to admit has often failed to tell a full and equal story of its chosen topics.

In the opening section of her film, James seizes on this by questioning the very validity of the existing exhibit, making no bones about what is missing. Conspicuous by its absence is the lack of focus on the era’s human costs and she explains how the horror and devastation of the British Slave Trade is muted. What little being present only compelled her to cry out for more. Views like this are given visceral realization in the film’s most heated moment, showing James herself silently screaming at a wealthy merchant’s grand and impassive portrait.

Lust is a persistent theme. The word is italicized whenever it appears on screen and the film itself uses a heavy red filter throughout its running time. Intent is clear; the rampant cravings that drove colonial exploitation of the rest of the world for the benefit of the British pocket was lust at its most rapacious and all-consuming.

This is borne out by James’ narration of the story of Mary Prince, a woman who was herself a slave and published a book of her experiences in the 1830s. Through her story the true weight of slavery is felt, as Mary describes every hour of her life dominated by her masters, lacking even basic autonomy over her very body. Even expressions of shame are not permitted to her as the demands of one master force her into cruel acts of graphic service.

This is impactful, morally engaged art, but the film itself falters as the stirring call to action these same messages cry out for. The imagery is rarely striking, and a majority of the action can simply be summed up as James moving through the gallery; there’s nothing visual or aural that comes close to leaving the kind of impact that simply hearing Mary Prince’s story brings.

Ultimately this is because the piece overall feels safe and contained within the boundaries of the existing exhibit, failing to deliver the fundamental challenge it sets itself up to do in James’ bracing opening. The proposed changes will hopefully take place regardless, but this film can only reasonably be thought to further the cause in minds, not hearts.

Living in the Wake of the Lust For Sugar will soon be publicly available on the Museum of London Docklands Social Media accounts.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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