A new pop-up art display called “Mischief in the Archives” opened on January 27th and will run through April 7th of this year. The exhibition is located in Blackwell Hall at the Weston Library and provides an intimate look into the artist’s family history. It seeks to decolonise the racialised narratives behind slave records and history.
The project was created as a collaboration between Peter Brathwaite, an internationally acclaimed opera singer and artist, and the Bodleian Libraries.
Brathwaite began the project by studying the Bodleian archives. Through researching his ancestral heritage, he traced his roots back to the British-owned Codrington plantations in Barbados, a Caribbean island. He is descended from both enslaved West Africans and their English enslavers.
Throughout the research process, Brathwaite noticed resistant slaves were often labelled as mischievous in archival documents such as ledgers. In reality, what was branded as “mischief” was people trying to exercise their right to personhood and free will.
By decolonising these archives, Brathwaite has created what he calls a “counter archive,” which highlights the perspectives of the oppressed that have historically been muted. Shifting the perspective of the documents from the oppressors to the enslaved showcases the agency of the enslaved individuals, such as efforts to practise indigenous religions or listen to African music.
The art project brings together Brathwaite’s research and reflections, personal items, and archival content to shed light on the hidden stories of the past. It demonstrates the living history of slavery and how racialised narratives have buried and dehumanised the experiences of oppressed peoples.
“Mischief in the Archives” has allowed Brathwaite to explore and piece together his family history and identity. It likewise provides an opportunity for others with a similar ancestral experience to find representation and voice.
The exhibition comes as part of the Bodleian Libraries project ‘We Are Our History’: Towards Racial Equity. The Mellon Foundation funds this project in hopes of promoting racial equality and inclusivity throughout the entire Bodelian system and its institutional reach with audiences.
The Bodleian Libraries commented: “Mischief in the Archives is an intimate portrait of renowned baritone and artist Peter Brathwaite’s ancestry, that challenges preconceived ideals of race and history through his own ‘creative mischief’. The exhibition comes as part of the Bodleian Libraries Mellon Foundation funded research project, We Are Our History, and seeks to learn and adapt from experiences and stories that might previously have been lost in our archives.”
The exhibition is free for students and visitors. The Weston Library is open on weekdays from 9am to 7pm and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays.
Image Credit: Ian Wallman
Image Description: a costume display in the Bodleian quad