An art exhibition reflecting on the crimes of an infamous Welsh colonial governor has opened at the National Museum in Cardiff.

Reframing Picton aims to correct the "hero" narrative built up around Sir Thomas Picton, a Carmarthen-born general who, before his death at the Battle of Waterloo, was most known for his cruel and violent rule as the colonial governor of Trinidad between 1797-1803.

It opened on Monday, as Trinidad and Tobago marked Emancipation Day - commemorating the abolition of slavery.

The National Museum - which, along with Arts Council Wales, was described as "institutionally racist" in a report by the Welsh Anti-Racist Union last summer - says that it hopes the year-long exhibition will "create healthy ways of addressing trauma" and "encourage visitors of all backgrounds to listen and learn from the past".

The National Wales: From "Spirited", by Laku Neg. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)From "Spirited", by Laku Neg. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)

Created as a collaboration between the museum, the youth wing of the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel, and artists from the UK and Trinidad, Reframing Picton surrounds the museum's enormous portrait of the general with an unsanitised history of Picton's crimes on the island - most notably his trial for the torture of Luisa Calderon, a mixed-race 14 year-old girl who had been accused of theft - and intricate, immersive artwork that examines the legacy of this violence.

The portrait - now displayed in a travel frame, a symbol of its eventual removal from the museum after the exhibition ends next year - originally hung in the Faces of Wales gallery, with no hint of Picton's grisly reputation as the "Tyrant of Trinidad" and "The Blood-Soaked Governor".

It was removed following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

The National Wales: Art collective Laku Neg. (Picture: National Museum Wales)Art collective Laku Neg. (Picture: National Museum Wales)

A newly-acquired transcript of Picton's torture trial now accompanies the painting, along with medals worn by supporters of the anti-slavery movement in 18th century Britain, and a medal from the 1819 Eisteddfod, won by Walter Davies for an ode to Picton.

Two new installations by Black artists from both the UK and Trinidad and Tobago, meanwhile, "explore narratives of ancestry, healing, transformation and empowerment" for the people harmed by Picton and his contemporaries.

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In The Wound is a Portal, Trinidadian artist Geysiye uses tattoo work, photography and film to create what she describes as "an ode to our island, to its beauty and to our belonging."

She recruited eight volunteers from Trinidad, who each agreed to be tattooed with a "portal" design of her creation. A series of intimate portraits and filmed interviews reflects on their relationships with the past and present of their island, and centres on the idea of healing.

The National Wales: A portrait from "The Wound is a Portal" (right) by Trinidadian artist Gesiye (left) (Pictures: Luigi Creese; Rebecca Wilks, Gesiye)A portrait from "The Wound is a Portal" (right) by Trinidadian artist Gesiye (left) (Pictures: Luigi Creese; Rebecca Wilks, Gesiye)

"The trauma of slavery and colonialism continues to impact the African diaspora's relationship with the land," Gesiye said.

Her project looks to "weave a mythology of land and personhood, celebrating individual identity while creating space to acknowledge our truths and transmute our pain."

Spirited was created by Laku Neg ("Black Yard" in Haitian Kwéyòl), a collective of Black UK artists - three of Trinidadian heritage.

Described as a "tapestry of memory and understanding", the installation focuses on three victims of Thomas Picton - Luisa Calderon, and two other young Black girls named Thisbe and Present - celebrating their lives through music, sculpture, photography and film.

"This ancestral work honours fractured African traditions in Trinidad that feed and underpin our island culture," Laku Neg said.

"Here, we offer reimaginings and recreations of a period in which Trinidadian and Welsh history overlap.

"It bears the fingerprints of communities of supporters in Trinidad and in Wales, who all helped to realise a vision that originated in our yard."

The National Wales: From "Spirited", by Laku Neg (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)From "Spirited", by Laku Neg (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)

At the centre of Spirited, shielded by walls of woven newspaper and other paper fragments, is a gold wire sculpture representing Luisa Calderon. 

The figure, with an ornately decorated red heart at its centre, is suspended over a crystal shaped into a sharp point. During her torture, 14 year-old Luisa had been hung from a scaffold by her wrist for nearly an hour, with her entire body weight balanced on an upturned wooden peg - an excruciatingly painful torture method known as "picketing".

Photographs of smiling young girls holding music boxes are displayed on either side of the sculpture.

"We were thinking about this idea of transformation," Adeola Dewis, a member of Laku Neg based in Cardiff, told The National.

The National Wales: From "Spirited" by Laku Neg. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)From "Spirited" by Laku Neg. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)

"We have these dramatic stories - we have these stories of abuse, we have these stories of death, of torture, of rape - but how do we then, through reimagining these stories, make beauty from it? 

"How do we turn torture into dance? How do we turn the scream into a song?

"We wanted to give these girls a space to play, to have a childhood."

Reframing Picton will be on display at the National Museum until September 2023.

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