Once Upon A Time In The West There Was Lace - Yard Gallery 2008
Godfried Donkor
Financial Times Union Jack 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Financial Times Star Spangled Banner 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Financial Times Star Spangled Banner 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Godfried Donkor 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Godfried Donkor 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Skull & Cross Bones 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Skull & Cross Bones 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Coat of Arms 2008 - Image David Sillitoe
Once Upon A Time In The West There Was Lace

An Investigation by Godfried Donkor.


In the summer of 2007, Godfried Donkor moved into the Yard Gallery at Nottingham’s beautiful Wollaton Hall. The Hall was built in 1588, shortly after the British slave trade started. 

In 1589 the knitting frame was invented in Nottinghamshire. It was the forerunner of the great Victorian lace machines that can still be seen at Wollaton, clattering reminders of our past manufacturing prosperity.

As Donkor strolled the surrounding parkland, filming the free-roaming herds of red deer, he started to research the project he had been planning for three years with his friend Michael Forbes, the Nottingham artist and curator. Lace was the thread he has connected to a horrific and inhuman history. Yet his exhibition also explains how the legacy of lace and slavery has helped to celebrate both the human body in contemporary culture, and the glorious multi-cultural fashions that adorn it.

Lace, the product that is still synonymous with Nottingham, was one of the great luxury goods of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then it was the frothy embodiment of material wealth and power, the default adornment of elegant high society. Then, as now, it was a status symbol that could have come from gross human exploitation, in slavery, or in modern sweatshops. 

But Donkor was also interested in the contemporary fashions of West Africa, where lace retains its symbolic power. There it is still the prized fashion fabric of both men and women – just as it was in 18th century Britain. Yet power over its production has been reclaimed. It is now made in Switzerland or Belgium in reds, purples, oranges or greens for African fashion garments. “Africa pushes the world market to supply it,” says Donkor, of this vivid new lace.

Donkor has his own explanation for this West African appetite for lace. He envisages the 18th century plantation owners returning for their ostentatious social seasons, and the lavish balls where social rituals and sexual intrigues were played out in front of silent but observant slave servants, deemed invisible by their masters. Stories of these luxurious spectacles were told and retold, until lace came to represent economic and cultural dominance. “Historically West Africans have emancipated themselves by taking what they could from foreigners and using it to give themselves social status, “ says Donkor.  

There are other ways, too, in which fashion has been part of the fabric of his own life. His mother was a dressmaker for many years, and he recalls her obsession with material. It was collected, stored, sold, compared, traded – and used. In the West, women can feel dictated to by mainly male designers whose trends permeate the high street every season. Donkor’s mother and her friends made their own clothes direct from the fabric, deciding fashion for themselves.

Another aspect of his exhibition is the celebration of the body, prevalent in underground reggae Dance Hall culture. While in Nottingham, Donkor spent his evenings in the bars and clubs of Radford and Hyson Green. As in the Caribbean, he saw a life-affirming physical display that is, in his opinion, a  reclamation of slavery’s legacy. “Slaves would be brought up on deck maybe once a day,” he says. “During that time women might try to attract boyfriends from amongst the crew, so that they would be treated better,” he says. “People find ways of surviving. Often this gives rise to creative ideas that, over time, can change a negative experience into a positive.” Lace garments made especially for the exhibition echo Dance Hall fashion. Corsets, hot pants, jeans and hoodies – itself the modern garment of invisibility – have been made from lace by Nottingham textile workers, then re-embroidered with Donkor’s own designs. Local people he met during his residency model them at the opening of the exhibition. The exhibition will be staged with the help of theatre design students at Nottingham Trent University, and three art apprentices recruited by The New Art Exchange. 

There is another element of Once Upon A Time In The West There Was Lace, too – Donkor’s drawings and paintings on his trademark Financial Times paper, itself a historic economic and cultural code. While working at Wollaton, many local people dropped in to chat, and some of them told him that the Hall had been built to Freemasons’ specifications. He has incorporated Freemasons’ symbols, representing an organisation of the thrusting mercantile – and slave trading – class. Pirate crests feature, still a sign of the rebel, albeit only in present day tattoos, together with the coats-of-arms of European families that represent the slave trade. Wollaton’s deer are there, too, themselves a potent symbol of the redistribution of power, since they are owned not by a noble, but by Nottingham City Council. 

This intricate collage of symbols past and present will represent a giant lace pattern that illustrates Donkor’s main point – contemporary behaviour can only be decoded by examining the past. Yet we are not prisoners of our own history. As we move beyond the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade, Nottingham can celebrate a very contemporary interlacing of shared cultures.


Lynn Hanna 

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