Hidden Presence Project

In partnership with Chepstow Museum and the University of the West of England, Ffotogallery and the artist Eva Sajovic have been working with participants in schools and community groups in Monmouthshire, Cardiff and Neath to produce this interactive online platform, housing work inspired by the life of Nathaniel Wells.

Nathaniel Wells was the son of a slave owner and enslaved woman, who through an extraordinary series of events progressed from the sugar plantations of the West Indies to a position of high social standing and wealth in 19th Century Britain. Taking his life as inspiration, and the complex moral issues that surrounded it, the project creatively challenges the notion that forced labour and the global exploitation of people is confined to our history, rather than something that continues to effect everyday life here in Wales.

Ffotogallery Education became involved with the Hidden Presence project not only to extend peoples’ understanding of the extraordinary life of Nathaniel Wells, but to use his important legacy as a means to examine a range of issues linked to national identity, cultural heritage, and modern slavery. The schools and groups explored the social history of Wales’ international trade links, and what it means to be Welsh - particularly for people who for social, racial or economic reasons feel outside of mainstream society. Through exploration of the importance of Nathaniel’s life in the context of contemporary society, the work presented here hopes to raise awareness of the rich cultural history of the area and to generate discussion around ethnicity, contemporary forms of slavery and its legacy.

The project worked with children and vulnerable young people living in South East Wales using photography and digital media as a means to explore pupils’ understanding about how history and slavery has built the landscape around them, and shaped the society they recognise. The project also encouraged young adults to explore their own experiences and ideas surrounding exploitation, including sexual exploitation, through writing and image making. It fostered thought around the use of photography and film in social media, in terms of ownership and vulnerability.

We would particularly like to thank Lisa Ambrose and Barnardos Cymru in supporting us in this work through their Seraf Service which supports children and young people effected by sexual exploitation as well as Emma Daman Thomas, South Wales Police, Claire Kern, Fra Beecher, Joanne Sutton, Georgia Bowles, Kasia, Sasha, Sadi, Sammy Panacci, Kieron Fenton, Keeley Rooke, Liam Roach, Harrison Heeley-Jones, Joel Birbeck, Ben Llewelyn, Paul Bell, Kane Chapman, Pip Jenkins, Amanda Edwards, Rory Garey, Juliet Grabner, Matthew Handford, Sian Williams, Plas Mawr School, Megan, Shauna, Shannon, Tash, Kate, Abbey, Hannah, Sophie, Chepstow School, Rachel Jeffery, Offa’s Mead Academy, Alison Harris-Pearce, Roma Taylor and Henry Hodges.

The project has been followed by the Hidden Presence blog, which documented the process and displayed snippets of the work on an ongoing basis. This provided a platform students to view their and the work of others and a sense of ownership of the project.

Artist Statement - Eva Sajovic

'I approached the Hidden Presence brief by considering students and community members as participants, collaborators and co-creators, and the work being focused as much on the process as on the final object. The work was grounded in an exploration of place, history and social issues surrounding the Nathaniel Wells story.

This method of working throws up issues around conventional modes of the production of art and our relationship to the aesthetic. Although form remains crucial for communicating meaning, experience is not only linked to visuality and is difficult to convey through either artwork or documentation of the process. Through the work presented within the exhibition and the Hidden Presence website I have tried to reveal something of this process, and the level of commitment and aspiration of the young people.

In terms of the Hidden Presence project this meant that the students were not engaged in a didactic relationship with the artist, but were autonomous learners, interacting with the sensory data. I prepared a skeletal structure that the participants filled through an active process; building on what they already knew, who they were, constructing knowledge for themselves. My role was as initiator, provoking a discussion, then relinquishing control for the participation of the young people, before picking up the strings again and completing the work.’

About the Artist

Eva Sajovic is a Slovene born artist photographer, living and working in London. Her focus is on socially engaged, participatory practice, in particular working with marginalised communities or those affected by processes of change.

Through presentations of images and the setting up of situations Eva aims to provoke discussion on issues beneath the surface of society. She then relinquishes control of the process for the participation of others to complete the work.

Eva has been commissioned by Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, The National Archives, Ffotogallery, Cuming museum, 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, and has been supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England. She is an Associate Lecturer at UAL’s Central Saint Martins and Chelsea College of Art.


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