Faber Lecture Discusses the Interwoven History of Colonialism, Slavery, and Property

June 4, 2021
Cameron Rowland, 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2020, Installation view

By Lisa Kraege, Humanities Council

On Thursday, May 20, the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) hosted artist Cameron Rowland to deliver the 2021 Faber Lecture. The lecture, entitled “Encumbrance,” examined the enduring legacies of slavery and British colonialism underpinning Rowland’s most recent work, the 2020 exhibition “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Drawing on critical race theory, legal, and historical records, Rowland entwined object, text, and property law to rethink reparations: “If the regime of property was integral to the violence of colonization, how might we imagine reparations other than the redistribution of property?”

The complex and nuanced nature of Rowland’s project is encapsulated in the title “Encumbrance.” An “Encumbrance,” is a legal term, “a right or interest in real property that does not prohibit its exchange but diminishes its value,” as Rowland defined it. It’s also the name of five artworks on display in “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73.” 

Each of these works consists of the text of a mortgage, issued for one of five mahogany components within 12 Carlton House Terrace, the building in which the ICA is housed, leased from the Crown Estate. Each “Encumbrance” against the Crown Estate via the ICA is never to be repaid and must remain as long as the mahogany elements are part of the building.

Drawing from the work of Saidiya Hartman, Stephanie Camp, and other critical race theorists, Rowland’s talk traced the inherent connection between slavery and colonialism and the pillars undergirding contemporary society, like the credit economy and privatized property. Carlton House Terrace, Rowland noted, was built in the early nineteenth century by George IV as a collection of rental properties intended to generate revenue for the Crown Estate, and each of the five mahogany elements within the ICA building–four doors, one handrail–came from colonies like Jamaica and Barbados, from mahogany trees felled and hewn by the hands of enslaved people. Rowland made clear that the building, and the arts institution within it, are inseparable from Britain’s colonial and slaveholding history.

“The development of credit economy is inherently tied to slavery,” Rowland said. “Mortgages operate through the collateralization of real estate, and contributed to the increasing treatment of land and slaves as transactable commodities.” This collapse between property and people that Rowland’s work critiques is observable in the name of the exhibition as well. “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73,” refers to the section of text from the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that promised to compensate slaveholders for the loss of enslaved people, understood as property assets. The amount paid was £20 million, at least £3.76 million of which went to planters, lenders, creditors, and banks, many of which still exist today.

“We have this narrative of enclosure,” Rowland explained in response to a question, referencing the Enclosure Acts that began in the seventeenth century, in which feudal land became privatized, “but it’s happening at the same time as all these other forms of property are being enclosed and created, and they’re not included in enclosure. Why isn’t the slave narrative included in the narrative of what private property came to be in the eighteenth century?”

Just as British lands were enclosed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Rowland explained, so too were Black lives enclosed. Rowland cited slave prisons in Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in 1682 and the legal definition of enslaved people as “chattel” in Barbados in 1672, a definition adopted quickly by other colonies. 

The treatment of enslaved people as property to be enclosed allowed for the transgression of that enclosure, Rowland said, working from Camp’s idea of “rival geographies.” “Slaveholders’ mapping was defined as rigid places for its residents, its rival geographies was characterized by motion,” Rowland said, “Together men and women took flight to the very woods and swamps that the owners intended to border the plantation’s geography of containment.”

These rival geographies, along with the multiple instances of property destruction that Rowland cited, show the long history of resistance that Rowland classifies as reparative work. This is “reparations as an antagonism to property,” Rowland explained. “As an antagonism, it is inherently incomplete. As a tradition, the antagonism of property operates through intergenerational continuance.”

Continuing this tradition of reparations as antagonism is at the center of Rowland’s “Encumbrances.” The persistence of these five mortgages, Rowland showed, offers one way towards intergenerational resistance within a legal system built on enclosure and property value.

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