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The Odyssey of a Moor

EXPLORING HISTORY: Graeme Mortimer Evelyn with his installation Call and Responses: The Odyssey of the Moor.

IN A bold move to explore the ethnic dimensions of royal histories, visual artist Graeme Mortimer Evelyn was given access to one of the oldest recorded and perhaps most mysterious artefacts for his latest installation, Call and Responses: The Odyssey of the Moor.

With funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts, Kensington Palace, part of the Historic Royal Palaces, has collaborated with the Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Collection Trust for this groundbreaking installation.

The centre piece of the work is sculptor John Van Nost’s Bust of the Moor, which was commissioned by King William III around 1688/9. The bust is made from complex layers of coloured marble, covered with semi-precious stones and displays a stunning level of attention to detail.

It’s almost regal posture is undermined only by the unmistakable slave collar across its neck.

Though it was not uncommon to have busts of servants made, to lavish such artistic licence and expense on an African at that period in history is interesting. Was there a relationship between a King and a slave, and why did William III immortalise the image of this man in the form of an exquisite bust?

History offers us no clues, but Jamaican-born Evelyn’s response to this mystery makes an attempt to contextualise the Moor in terms of its environment and potential history. Call and Responses: The Odyssey of the Moor places Van Nost’s bust within a gilded golden cage, but leaves its doors flung open, giving it a view of Kensington Gardens and a promise of emancipation. Evelyn also attempts to recreate The Odyssey through 32 coloured intricately hard-carved tiles circling the roof of the cage, which pictorially represent a story of the Moor’s journey to this place of rest.

Evelyn explained: “My intention is to open up its myth and mystery to viewers in order to further create possibilities of individual enquiry into a history of universal human survival and the meaning of freedom.”

Evelyn, who is of Jamaican descent, was first introduced to the project by the Royal Collection Trust in 2011 whilst completing his epic permanent contemporary altarpiece Reconciliation Reredos in St Stephen’s Church, Bristol.

Their enthusiasm for his participation as an artist capable of subverting public places of historical and religious significance was exceeded by his wonder of the Van Nost masterpiece – and so the project gathered pace.

Two years later, the outcome of this collaboration was unveiled to critical acclaim, with the Jamaica High Commissioner Aloun Ndombet-Assamba and Jonathan Marsden, director of the Royal Collection Trust in attendance.

“Graeme Evelyn has opened eyes to exciting new possibilities in working with artists in the spaces and with the art objects within the palaces,” said David Souden, head of access and learning at Historic Royal Palaces.

“His concepts and approach have brought different sensibilities so that familiar objects and stories are seen in a new light. The installation for Van Nost’s Bust of the Moor is a thing of beauty and wonder in itself, and it tells a surprising story of black soldiers and servants that has long been buried under the dead weight of the history of the Glorious Revolution.

Souden added: “The project has also brought together partners working in new ways, with the Royal Collection Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and Arts Council England, combining with Graeme Evelyn in a work that stretches boundaries and captures visitors’ imaginations.”

Of his installation, Evelyn said: “It has been a great honour and a huge responsibility. The Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Collection Trust staff were immensely supportive in the creation of this piece. The benefit to my practice of working with such hard working, passionate professionals has been immense.”

Call and Responses: The Odyssey of the Moor will be on public display at the Queen’s State Apartments at Kensington Palace, London until January 6 2014. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk

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