Toronto artist Camille Turner shines light on Newfoundland’s connections to slave trade. (Still from video filmed and edited by Brian Ricks).

Art exhibition highlights history of slave trade in Newfoundland

An exhibition at this year’s Bonavista Biennale in St. John, Newfoundland, highlights a dark part of the province’s history – the island’s involvement in the 18th century slave trade.

Few people know, but Newfoundland built several ships in the 18th century to transport mainly slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and America.

Toronto artist and academic Camille Turner was very surprised when she discovered all the documentation on these ships and that’s why she chose this angle to illustrate her artistic installation.

Her Afronautic Research Lab consist of a “futuristic reading room” as she describes it. “The public is invited to come into the room and engage with material which consist of newspapers from the 18th century and also books that look at the evidence of slavery and its connection to Newfoundland.”

Turner really focused her exhibition on the 19 slave ships that were built on the island. She explained to us how she represented them:

Photo of the Afronautic Research Lab by Camille Turner, Bonavista Biennale 2019.
Information mostly found on the internet

To create her exhibition, Turner mainly used the Internet and the website in particular as official sources are lacking on the subject.

She also drew her work from a Harvard University database which compiles records of slaving expeditions between 1514 and 1866.

She found a lot of information about the ships themselves, but one thing was missing:

(Credit: Screenshot of website)

As she explains, she found a lot of documents on the expeditions, but what was missing were details about the trafficked people and their lives.

During her research, she discovered that most of the vessels were leaving from various African countries such as Sierra Leone or Senegal, for the Caribbeans to transport slaves. Some have even been to the American continent, to Mississippi and Charleston.

Surprised visitors

Turner’s aeronautics research laboratory has toured several cities in Canada and she explains that visitors are often surprised to discover this past history:

Still from video filmed and edited by Brian Ricks.

Turner’s travelling Afronautic Research Lab is on display at the Bonavista Biennale until September 15, 2019.

Bringing these stories to light

Camille Turner’s objective with this art exhibition is above all to highlight this hidden part of Canadian history.

And she’s only just begun to discover it, as she explains:

Still from video filmed and edited by Brian Ricks.

Research is currently being done in Atlantic Canada to understand the role the slave economy played in the region’s history.

Recently, a panel exploring Dalhousie University’s history of racism and links to slavery has issued its final report. It calls for an apology from the Halifax school, a provincial memorial of the slave trade and other forms of reparation.

The artist now hopes her exhibit keeps travelling the country to keep the narrative expanding, revealing hidden truths about familiar places.

With files from The Canadian Press

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One comment on “Art exhibition highlights history of slave trade in Newfoundland
  1. Avatar Caitlin says:

    I am a new permanent resident in Canada. I come from the United States. I think Camille’s perspective of this issue is an interesting one. I’ve lived here for less than a year, and I never really thought about slavery in Newfoundland. I was surprised to hear how my new home was tied to slavery. I heard Camille on the radio today on my way home from work. I wanted to say thank you for spreading this knowledge. I grew up in Indiana and I am glad that we didn’t shy away from the topic of slavery in schools. We never really went into much detail, but we did talk about it. One of my favorite field trips was to the Levi Coffin house. This house was a short stop for slaves as they made their way north to freedom. It looks like I missed the exhibit, but I hope it will be reappearing in the St. John’s area.