Slaves were made to circle around the tree of forgetting so that they forget their homes. Slaves were made to circle around the tree of forgetting so that they forget their homes. Source: Linda De Volder - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tayo Aluko responds to the resonances of the video art of Paulo Nazareth at the Tate Liverpool

Last month, at Tate Liverpool, I was moved by a particular artwork, Tree of Forgetting, by African Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth. In four videos, we watch Nazareth walk backwards and anti-clockwise endlessly around a different tree, one of them in the Benin Republic. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, captives were made to walk around that same tree several times, in a ritual designed (hoped) to make them forget their history and culture, and become submissive before being led onto slave ships.

Nazareth’s work, therefore, seems actively to resist the forgetting that his ancestors were forced to undergo, as passers-by variously watch with a mixture of perplexity and pity, ignore him, or fail to notice him as they go about their daily business. 

This work comes to mind as one contemplates two anniversaries marked, rather differently, last month: 15 February was the twentieth anniversary of the gigantic anti-war protests, in which millions marched around the world to stop the Iraq war, before being ignored by world leaders who then plunged us into another war, with the Afghan one still in its infancy. The other anniversary, much more enthusiastically covered (and consumed), marked one year since the 24 February outbreak of the Ukraine war, also perhaps still in its infancy.

It is that forgetting what we are encouraged to do by the Establishment, the media, the right – whoever – that makes too many of us unwilling or unable to see the connection between wars abroad and the need for people to flee their homes in search of peace and safety, some ending up in four-star hotels a stones-throw from areas of great deprivation in this country, like Knowsley, where there was that violent riot recently.

Another part of the great forgetting is what happened when African students in Ukraine were prevented from leaving until the ‘blonde-haired, blue-eyed’ indigenous people could get out first, many of them to find shelter in homes into which we were paid to welcome them. Whatever happened to those Africans? How many are at risk of drowning in the Channel or the Mediterranean like so many did in the Atlantic during the Middle Passage?

It seems more of us need to walk backwards and anti-clockwise, even as others regard us with pity or perplexity, but we hope that enough will stop, look, and try to understand just why we seem to be always going round endlessly in circles.

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