In 2020 RAMM invited Joy Gregory to create new artwork in response to the themes and ideas explored in the exhibition ‘In Plain Sight’ and the objects on display.
Born in Oxfordshire to Jamaican parents, Gregory began her career by making photographic self-portraits in response to the lack of cultural representation of black female beauty. Now, after nearly 40 years making, teaching and exhibiting, both in the UK and internationally, Gregory is well-known for investigating photography’s history and materiality in relation to race, class and language.
The Sweetest Thing is Gregory’s first textile work. It refers directly to the ‘Combesatchfield’ embroidery also in RAMM’s collection https://rammcollections.org.uk/object/64-1957-11-1/ . Describing the inspiration for making the work, Gregory says:
“How black people are treated now stems from the history explored in this exhibition. It is a deeply troubling and uncomfortable history. This new work talks to the trade of unrefined sugar and refined sugar, by presenting it in a way that people take responsibility and understand the relationship between themselves and history. I’m interested in the stark contrast of the lives lived in the grand houses in Devon – all daintiness, pretty dresses and sitting down to tea – compared to the lives of the enslaved or the factory workers. I see my job as an artist to create curiosity and bring histories together. I am making things of beauty to talk about ugliness.”
The commission consisted of three elements, a textile hanging, a video and a series of photographs which were all displayed in the exhibition In Plain Sight. The textile is now in RAMM’s collection.
During 2020 and 2021, Gregory travelled around Devon photographing houses and sites with links to the transatlantic slave trade. The embroidered images of these houses, coupled with text that links previous owners to ‘the trade’, are shown interspersed with sugar nippers and shakers from RAMM’s collections.
Motifs from sugar production including the instruments of control – head restraints, collars and shackles – together with its currency, manillas, worn on a woman’s arms have been embroidered onto swirling patterns created by cyanotypes of the artist’s own hair. The blue of the cyanotype and the white photograms of hair resembles the sea, evoking the Black Atlantic or Middle Passage: the traumatic and dangerous journey that enslaved Africans were forced to endure.
Gregory describes the textile as depicting, ‘Sugar production on both sides of the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries’ where the ‘houses are like ghosts’. The Sweetest Thing directly connects Devon’s wealth with the suffering of enslaved people on the Caribbean Plantations.
Press release: https://rammuseum.org.uk/news/ramm-acquires-the-sweetest-thing-by-joy-gregory/
Listen to Joy Gregory describe the inspiration for the making of the work in this film by Martin Hampton, commissioned by RAMM.
© Joy Gregory
This object is not on display.