Chainmail is a material that is simultaneously a symbol of protection and violence and is used by Amartey as a reminder of the contradictions we all hold, both as individuals and within a wider context. Its historical purpose is to protect the life of the wearer, in order for the wearer to take the life of another. Exploring these contradictions in a self-implicating way (and the search for some kind of balance between them) is the foundation of Amartey’s practice and the starting point for this project.
Although Amartey had never been to Portsmouth before being invited by Rebecca Crow, over the last 4 years an unexpected relationship developed between the artist and the group of locals who have seen and discussed his new works at Jackhouse Gallery. Their opinions and responses have become an important sounding board for Amartey and his work.
Amartey has also collaborated with Chris Jones (Rebecca’s Husband) and Paul Martin on previous projects and wanted to utilise their skills in fabrication for an ambitious new project. They had both learnt their craft working on the Portsmouth Dockyards as young men and have helped in building the structural supports for the sculptures exhibited. This invaluable relationship kept Portsmouth in the forefront of Amartey’s mind when developing this current project.
The historical harbour and naval base are the crowning glory of Portsmouth. The first recorded dry dock in the world was built in Portsmouth by Henry VII in 1495 and in the 1800’s Portsmouth's Harbour and naval base had 684 ships and was the largest industrial complex in the world. As a seafaring country, the navy was one of Britain’s most important assets, and as a result Portsmouth’s contribution played a significant role in Britain's success across the globe.
Between 1699 and 1711, eight slave ships left Portsmouth for Africa and throughout the transatlantic slave trade, both British and French slave vessels returned to Portsmouth. In 1808, after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron with its home base being in Portsmouth. The Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships between 1808 and 1860, freeing 150,000 people.
Elements such as these are examples of Britain's conflicting legacies. In a time when we as a country so clearly need balance, how do we go about finding it? Can these opposing identities coexist within one object without having to deny the potency of either one?
This search for balance is seen in Amartey’s new series of chainmail sculptures, the largest of which weighs 126kg with 153,780 links that have all been wound, cut and fitted together by hand and hung from a single point in the ceiling. At given intervals, the sculpture is spun at increasing speeds until it opens out into a large geometric shape, spanning over 2 meters in diameter.
Amartey originally intended for the spinners to be perfectly balanced, however the search for balance proved to be an elusive one. When observing the sculptures, any slight flaw is invisible to the naked eye; a fractionally smaller link on one side or an extra piece on the other is negligible. Yet, once it starts moving, the seemingly insignificant imbalances become more and more prevalent until they throw the entire sculpture violently off its axis, turning the momentum into a destructive force with potentially serious consequences.
“It’s hard not to see the imbalances in the metal as mirroring the imbalances in us. Each spinning sculpture aims to achieve its own balance, it’s own stability. Some will fail and some will succeed.” - Amartey Golding.