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The University of Southampton
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Sweet Tooth

Bringing the archive of Atlantic slavery to new audiences though movement and sound, Sweet Tooth represents an innovative collaboration between historical research and performance practice.

Since 2007 Professor Christer Petley has been mining the rich archive of one of the Caribbean’s most influential and wealthy slaveholders, the Jamaican sugar planter Simon Taylor. Divided between Spanish Town (Jamaica), Cambridge and London, Taylor’s surviving papers included a probate document of 1813 that listed 2,248 enslaved people among Taylor's “property”, some of them recorded as being of “no value.” An Early Career Fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council enabled Petley to transcribe more than 160,000 of Taylor's words, deepening our understanding of slaveholder identity, politics and material culture. The project website is free to use and open to everyone.

Taylor’s letters form the focus of Petley’s 2018 book White Fury, published by Oxford University Press. White Fury offered a new analysis of the British slave system, as well as of the political defeat of the planters at a time when revolutions in the Americas combined with abolitionism in Britain to bring an end to the slave trade. Scholarly reception of the book was overwhelmingly favourable, with reviews noting how its detailed interpretation of the Taylor archive transforms our understanding of the mind of the planter class.

In November 2013 performance artist Elaine Mitchener contacted Petley, interested in creating a new piece of performance art exploring the histories of sugar, slavery and connections between Jamaica and Britain. Born in London to parents who had emigrated to Britain from Jamaica, Mitchener is a well-known and highly regarded artist and performer. The result of two years of creative dialogue and exchange, Sweet Tooth was a forty-five minute performance which took the Taylor documents made available by Petley as its libretto. Scripted and performed by Mitchener herself, the piece included accompaniment by instrumentalist Sylvia Hallett, percussionist Mark Sanders and saxophonist Jason Yarde.

 

Sweet Tooth

 

Workshops and residencies at Southampton’s Turner Sims concert hall, at Aldeburgh Music and the Bloomsbury Festival in 2016 gave Mitchener and Petley opportunities to further refine their ideas and bring them to audiences for the first time. Sweet Tooth premiered at Liverpool's Bluecoat Centre for the Contemporary Arts on 23 November 2017. To find out what happened next, click on the “Media” tab above.

Sweet Tooth premiered at Liverpool's Bluecoat Centre for the Contemporary Arts on 23 November 2017, with subsequent performances at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton and the Museum of London, Docklands. A recording of the Liverpool Bluecoat performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, bringing the work to listeners across the UK and beyond. In March 2020 Sweet Tooth’s international premiere took place at the Borealis Festival, Bergen, Norway.

Deliberately discomfiting, Sweet Tooth has provoked strong responses from audiences as well as gaining critical acclaim. As one audience-member noted, “sound, music and historical reference were used perfectly together,” transporting them “to an uncomfortable but necessary space.” Audience and performers alike attributed the piece’s power to the use of actual probate lists of enslaved persons from Taylor’s estate, alongside extracts from his letters. The choice of Liverpool and London as venues was informed by those cities’ historical role in the slave trade. Liverpool Bluecoat’s 1717 building, funded by proceeds from the trade, drew these connections tighter, facilitating what the institution’s director called a “discursive environment around colonial legacies, locally and nationally.”

Mitchener continues to develop the methods and work that she pioneered in Sweet Tooth. On 8 July 2019 she unveiled her new set of installations for English Heritage at Portchester Castle, Hampshire, which recite parts of historical lists and letters to evoke the site’s history as a prison for captured former slaves from the French Caribbean during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. Extending the work of reinterpreting the archive of slavery through sound, Mitchener has also developed a stand-alone solo piece [Names]—an extension of her work with Taylor’s probate inventory, including incantation of the names listed in the document. This was first performed on 16 October 2016 at the Spill Festival, Ipswich, evolving into a sound installation at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, during November 2019.

The novel and innovative cross-disciplinary methods that continue to shape Mitchener’s own practice have the potential to influence new work by other artists and performers. Because it relies in some part on improvised performances and is adapted for the space provided by each new venue, Sweet Tooth itself remains a work in progress—and one that has made a unique impression on all those involved in its production. As the instrumentalist Sylvia Hallett observed, the project’s creative engagement with the archive formed “a central core around which the stuff of imagination can weave new paths.”

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Staff MemberPrimary Position
Christer PetleyProfessor of Atlantic History
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