Enlightenment: Maps, Plants and the Triangular Trade

Installation with an artist talk at The Leeds Library, 18 Commercial Street, Leeds.


The library, which was founded in 1768, contains a wealth of unique information.

As artist in residence,  I took as my subject enlightenment: what it meant in the eighteenth century and some of the ideas of that time, as evidenced by the books in the library. 

I used the exhibition and talk to describe my journey into the archives. 

My journey followed 18th century routes. These routes crossed the sea: first to trade, secondly to catch and transport slaves, thirdly to hunt and collect plants using various methods of recording and naming. The project illustrates colonial attitudes. By this I mean the seizing of land, people and plants, then renaming them and claiming them as property.

 The exhibition was in four parts, making use of the structures in the Library. 

The Library has a beautiful bound copy of James Cook’s maps of his travels. On his journeys he took botanists and artists to describe the landscape and preserve plants. Many of these plants were economically important, whole others are found in our gardens today. Above, you can see some seed trays which I filled and labelled with the names of plants and plant hunters. They named these plants after themselves, or after celebrities of the time, thus implying that plants had no names before white colonialists named and catalogued them. (for example Dahlias were named after Anders Dahl.)

Another beautiful folio sized book inspired me to experiment with printing leaves by hand. These were hung on the balcony. Controlling this method of printing is quite difficult! While printing I was thinking about what I had read about deaths, memorials and wreaths, both of the explorers who died and of the victims of wars and slavery.






I stencil printed some sacks, filled them and  hung them from the balcony. Each was printed with the name and date of a ship, used either in the slave/tea/sugar trade or as an expedition vessel. The sacks on the right side were adventurers ships,  and on the left, traders in slaves. During my research I found that a peculiar aspect of ship naming gave women’s names to slave ships.

I wanted to add some physical ‘enlightenment’ to the library. So I collected together some examples of the goods traded and put them in little boxes, each with a small light. The boxes were secreted in the dark spaces between books on the library shelves. The spices, tea and coffee, added aroma and light.

At the close of the exhibition I gave an artist talk to interested people in the library. After the talk we gave the audience a feast of  tasty “artist made” 18th century tea and cake. (with thanks to cake makers Caro Blount-Shah and Stewart Longbottom)