The World Reimagined

Behind The Scenes Of The National Art Project Foregrounding Black British History

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“It’s Very Hard To Own A Country That Seems Like It’s Rejecting You”: Behind The Scenes Of The National Art Project Foregrounding Black British History

If statues of the likes of Edward Colston are the disease, The World Reimagined is the cure.


For singer, writer and actress Michelle Gayle, learning about Black history was always a natural part of growing up. The daughter of celebrated community activist Maria Gayle, she spent her spare time attending classes and exhibitions about Black culture run by her mother’s organisation Black Insight, which worked to support the local community in Harlesden, north London. “As the child of an activist, I didn’t quite get it,” she admits. “I was mostly quite upset because I didn’t have her full attention because she was so passionate. It’s only when I look back, I’m so proud of her because she taught me all of these things really young.”

Passed down from her mother, Michelle continued to cultivate her passion for Black history well into her adulthood, which subsequently led to what she describes as a “full circle” moment founding The World Reimagined in 2019. The first UK-based project of its kind, The World Reimagined is a ground-breaking national art project designed to transform how we understand the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact. Due to kick off in the summer of 2022, the initiative will see imaginative and interactive trails featuring the project’s sculptures pop up in cities across the UK, including London, Leeds and Swansea, with more to be announced.

Many of the installations will be designed by world-class artists such as Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare, who conceived the “blank canvas” form of the The World Reimagined’s globes, which emerging talent and leading creatives then reimagine. The original art works will respond to themes ranging from “Mother Africa” and “The Reality of Being Enslaved” to “Still We Rise” and “Expanding Soul”. Education is the beating heart of this movement, with more than 250 schools and colleges poised to participate in an experiential learning programme inspired by the themes explored. Every installation will also be accompanied by an immersive mobile app experience presenting what Michelle describes as a “comprehensive look at being Black and British”.

As such an abstract form of expression, art is something of an unconventional choice of medium to convey the sombre truths of the slave trade, but Michelle maintains that its subjectivity is what makes the message accessible. “Art is an emotional journey. Because you’re trying to understand it, it means you naturally develop empathy. It means that you’re living with it and you’re living with the truth that each theme is trying to show you,” she explains. The World Reimagined team were adamant that their message should reach every corner of the nation and touch “every class and every creed”. Despite enlisting the expertise of some of the best researchers in the field, including experts in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the likes of Harvard and UCL, the project’s focus on accessibility meant that Michelle and her team felt “the lecture hall was the wrong place for what we wanted to do”. “We felt art was the easiest route to building empathy for the journey of discovery and a much more accessible way for people to understand,” she explains.

Spearheading a nationwide movement may seem like a daunting task, but for Michelle it was something of an inevitability. “These are my roots, this is where I come from,” she says when asked what inspired the original concept, which she developed with co-founder Dennis Marcus. The project’s commitment to education in particular does seem reminiscent of the work of her mother decades ago, and it’s the same desire to tell the stories of her ancestors that drives Michelle to this day. “What I want The World Reimagined to make people understand is the contribution of our ancestors to making this country great. If you understand that journey, you will understand the need for equality and why re-balance is necessary,” she says. Inspiring belonging in Black Brits who feel excluded from the national identity is also a key motivation. “It’s about helping people from the African and Caribbean diasporas think, you know what, I didn’t know that and I’m proud to say we helped make Britain great,” she adds. “Right now, we don’t feel part of the British identity, because we don’t feel our history has been valued. It’s very hard to own a country that seems to be rejecting you.”

In the current moment, a year on from the energy and passion poured into last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, it seems The World Reimagined couldn’t have come along at a better time. But just one year before the murder of George Floyd sparked a global reckoning, the project faced pushback from those who questioned whether the UK was ready for such an open conversation about its history. “It seems strange now, but it was a very difficult prospect in our minds that anybody would embrace it,” Michelle says, thinking back to when the project was in its infancy in early 2019. “Many people told us that they thought it was a good idea, but their warning shot was always, ‘We don’t know if the country will be ready.’” After months of doubt, the historic protests against racial injustice which broke out around the country served as the “green light” the team was looking for. The falling of prolific 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston’s Bristol statue proved to be a particular turning point. “We had so many things in place before Colston’s statue went down it meant that when it did, and people started talking about it, we thought ‘Britain is finally ready for the conversation, and guess what? We’re ready to go!’”

Since that point, the team hasn’t looked back, securing partnerships with an impressive roster of clients including media giant Sky, and the backing of influential ambassadors such as legendary broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald. Despite having worked tirelessly on the project for two years now, Michelle and her team remain as enthused as ever. “Sometimes Dennis calls me, and we go ‘Can you believe this?’” says Michelle of the rapid growth and development the movement has seen since its inception. What’s kept them going through a pandemic and countless rejections is the promise of what’s to come. “I want a better future for all our kids, and that involves us having this very tricky conversation in order to move forward,” she says. Like her own mother, Michelle is intentional about celebrating diverse history in her parenting, something that’s already made an impression on 9-year-old Luke who, following in his mother and grandmother’s footsteps, recently started a campaign to contextualise his school’s Churchill house.

But despite the promise of a younger generation, she’s aware that there is still work to be done. “We’ve seen a backwards trend since Brexit, I’ve seen it – I’m on Twitter,” says Michelle. “Even the booing of footballers taking the knee, there’s a disconnect between why they’re doing it and the understanding. The World Reimagined is to bridge that gap, I honestly believe if they had a wider understanding of the Black British experience, they would not boo like that, they would understand why it’s important. I want to do anything I can to bridge that gap – it feels like my purpose.”

The World Reimagined is a company limited by guarantee (#1250114) and a registered charity (#115223). 

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