A specially commissioned work of art from Joy Gregory has been purchased by the Contemporary Art Society with the support of the Friends of RAMM.

RAMM announced the acquisition of the new work of Joy Gregory The sweetest thing, thanks to the generous support of the Contemporary Art Society and the Friends of the RAMM. Recently on display at the museum, Gregory’s first textile piece draws inspiration from RAMM’s archaeological and textile collections, as well as his own research into sugar production.

Joy Gregory is an internationally acclaimed British photographer and artist. Recognized for her experimental and interdisciplinary approach, Gregory is recognized as one of the leading artists in photography today. She has produced work in a range of media exploring difficult social and political issues with particular reference to history, race, gender and cultural differences in contemporary society.

In 2019 RAMM commissioned Gregory to create new artwork in response to the themes of In Plain Sight: Transatlantic Slavery and Devon. Since then, Gregory has worked closely with the museum staff, the exhibition’s advisory committee and members of the local community to explore Devon and Exeter’s relationship to the transatlantic slave trade.

Gregory, born to Jamaican parents, chose to make a tapestry after being particularly struck by an embroidered linen textile piece from the 1750s kept in the collections. Formerly owned by the Landfordbrown family at Combesatchfield House near Silverton, it illustrates the lifestyle of wealthy people and depicts the figure of a black child holding a parasol above a richly dressed woman. Combesatchfield embroidery is now on display opposite Gregory’s intricate tapestry.

Gregory’s textile piece uses cyanotype photograms of the artist’s own hair to evoke the sea and the Middle Passage, a traumatic and gruesome journey across the Atlantic Ocean of those captured in Africa and forced to work on plantations in the Caribbean.

In 2020 and 2021, Gregory traveled around Devon photographing homes and sites related to the transatlantic slave trade. Embroidered images of these houses alongside scenes such as slaves loading sugar bring together stories from both sides of the Atlantic.

Along the edges of the tapestry are images of people held by slaves to prevent them from eating sugar cane, interspersed with images of sugar shakers from the RAMM collection. All the embroideries were made by machine to reflect the idea of ​​industry.

Gregory has previously worked on projects that explore similar themes. More recently in 2020, Alongside Matron Bell was commissioned by Lewisham Hospital to create a work celebrating 60 years of the NHS, and Invisible life force of plants explored how the plants we often associate with British heritage came from elsewhere.

Speaking about the commission, Joy Gregory said:

“I’m interested in the stark contrast of the lives lived in the great houses of Devon – all dainties, pretty dresses and sitting down to tea – versus the lives of slaves or factory workers. I see my job as an artist to arouse curiosity and bring stories together. I do beauty to talk about ugliness.

Lara Goodband, Curator of Contemporary Art and Programmer at RAMM, said:

“I am delighted that this important work of art which is so relevant to RAMM and Devon will find its way into the museum for future generations of visitors to enjoy and learn from. It is both a beautiful textile and a shocking reminder of the horrific trade of trafficked Africans. Every time I watch the The sweetest thing I see a detail I had missed before and think back to British history.

Caroline Douglas, Director of the Contemporary Art Society, said:

“It was an extraordinary achievement to bring this residency and exhibition to fruition through all the difficulties of the past two years. Everyone at the Contemporary Art Society is delighted that there is a permanent legacy from the residency in the collections at RAMM in Exeter, in the form of this stunning piece of textile by Joy Gregory. The sweetest thing is an important and timely work: it speaks to the depth of research the artist was able to undertake and reveals aspects of the region’s history that have remained hidden in historical collections.

One of the museum’s supporting charities, The Friends of RAMM, said:

“The Friends of RAMM who raise funds to support RAMM in their acquisitions were delighted to support this purchase. We felt that this first piece of embroidery by a nationally recognized artist was a very important addition to RAMM’s collection. It is also significant because it is based on Devon’s links to the transatlantic slave trade which will have long term historical significance. RAMM and Joy Gregory are to be congratulated that this piece has a permanent home in Exeter.

We would like to thank the Contemporary Art Society and the Friends of RAMM for making this acquisition possible.

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