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RAMM acquires thought-provoking work by acclaimed artist Joy Gregory

Published: 8 June 2022

Joy Gregory Joy Gregory

A specially commissioned artwork by Joy Gregory has been purchased by the Contemporary Art Society with support from the Friends of RAMM.

RAMM has announced the acquisition of Joy Gregory’s new artwork The Sweetest Thing, thanks to the generous support of the Contemporary Art Society as well as the Friends of RAMM. Recently on display in the museum, Gregory’s first textile piece draws on RAMM’s archaeological and textile collections, as well as her own research into sugar production.

Joy Gregory is an internationally acclaimed British photographer and artist. Known for her experimental and interdisciplinary approach, Gregory is recognised as one of the leading artists in photography today. She has produced work in a range of media exploring difficult social and political issues with particular reference to history, race, gender and cultural differences in contemporary society.

In 2019, RAMM commissioned Gregory to create new artwork in response to the themes of In Plain Sight: Transatlantic Slavery and Devon. Since then Gregory has worked closely with the museum team, the exhibition’s advisory panel and local community members to explore Devon and Exeter’s relationship with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Artwork by Joy Gregory

Gregory, who was born to Jamaican parents, chose to make a tapestry after she was particularly struck by an embroidered linen textile piece from the 1750s held in the collections. Once belonging to the Landfordbrown family at Combesatchfield House near Silverton, it illustrates the lifestyle of wealthy people and depicts the figure of a Black child holding a parasol above a richly dressed woman. The Combesatchfield embroidery is now on display opposite Gregory’s intricate tapestry.

Gregory’s textile piece uses cyanotype photograms of the artist’s own hair to evoke the sea and Middle Passage, a traumatic and horrific journey across the Atlantic Ocean of those captured in Africa and forced to work on plantations in the Caribbean.

During 2020 and 2021, Gregory travelled around Devon photographing houses and sites with links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Embroidered images of these houses alongside scenes such as enslaved people loading sugar bring together stories from both sides of the Atlantic.

Along the edges of the tapestry are images of people in slave-restraints to stop them from eating sugar cane, interspersed with images of sugar shakers from RAMM’s collection. All embroidery has been done by machine to reflect on the idea of industry.

Gregory has previously worked on projects which explore similar themes. Most recently in 2020, Alongside Matron Bell was commissioned by Lewisham Hospital to create a work celebrating 60 years of the NHS, and Invisible Life Force of Plants explored how plants we often associate with British heritage came from elsewhere.

Speaking about the commission, Joy Gregory said:

‘I am interested in the stark contrast of the lives lived in 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.’

Lara Goodband, Contemporary Art Curator and Programmer at RAMM, said:

‘I am delighted that this important work of art that is so relevant to RAMM and Devon will find a home at the museum for future generations of visitors to enjoy and learn from. It’s both a beautiful textile and a shocking reminder of the horrific trade in trafficked African people. Every time I look at the The Sweetest Thing I see a detail I’d missed before, and reflect again on British history.’

Caroline Douglas, Director of the Contemporary Art Society, said:

‘It was an extraordinary achievement to complete this residency and exhibition through all the difficulties of the past two years.  Everyone at the Contemporary Art Society is delighted that there will be a permanent legacy of the residency in the collections at RAMM in Exeter, in the shape of this magnificent textile piece by Joy Gregory. The Sweetest Thing is an important and timely work: it speaks of the depth of research the artist was able to undertake and reveals aspects of the history of the region that have lain hidden within the historic collections.’

One of the museum’s supporting charities, The Friends of RAMM, said:

‘The Friends of RAMM who raise money to support RAMM in their acquisitions were delighted to support this purchase. We felt that this first piece of embroidery by a nationally acclaimed artist was a very important addition to RAMM's collection. It is also important as it is based on connections of Devon to the Transatlantic Slave Trade which will have long term historical significance. RAMM and Joy Gregory are to be congratulated that this piece will have a permanent home in Exeter.’

We are grateful to the Contemporary Art Society and the Friends of RAMM for making this acquisition possible.

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