Ten Years a Slave

In May 2012, British street artist Banksy placed a provocative new artwork on a north London wall, in close proximity to a Poundland store.

The piece rapidly gained notoriety, not for its challenging depiction of a small child at work in a far-eastern sweat shop, creating reams of Union Jack bunting for Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebrations of that year, but for its equally swift removal and moniterisation.

In quick time, the slab of wall appeared on the front page of an auction house catalogue, previewing its sale via Fine Art Auctions. Miami, for an estimated sale price of just under £500,000. Following a shower of negative press and adverse publicity, the piece was swiftly removed from sale, only seconds after the bidding was set to start.

Six years later, American contemporary artist Ron English purchased Slave Labour for $730,000, from Julien's Auctions in Los Angeles. At the time he suggested he would whitewash the now toxic block of north London render.

He said: "My idea for this painting is to whitewash it for my good pal Banksy, I only wish I could've spent more money for it. "I'm going to paint it white again, I'm done. This is a blow for street art. It shouldn't be bought and sold. "I'm going to paint over it and just include it in one of the walls in my house. We're tired of people stealing our stuff off the streets and re-selling it so I'm just going to buy everything I can get my hands on and whitewash it."

Ten Year's a Slave was painted on the exact same section of wall, on the exact same date that Banksy created the original. Ten years on, the UK was preparing for widespread celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee. Not only does this homage and epitaph feature the original sewing machine, it connects with a broader issue concerning veneration of those who benefited from the slave trade.

The Banksy sewing machine is placed atop an infamous plinth, which until June 7, 2020 supported a statue of the 17th Century Bristol slave trader Edward Colston. On this day, members of the Black Lives Matter campaign proved the catalyst for the bronze statue to be toppled from the plinth, and eventually cast off the quayside into the depths of Bristol Harbour.

Two years after this event, four members of the public, dubbed the Colston Four, were acquitted in a Bristol Crown Court of criminal damage.

Following release, one of the group, Sage Willoughby, stated "We didn't change history, we rectified it. This is a victory for Bristol, this is a victory for racial equality and it's a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history."

Prior to the trial, Banksy provided support for the defendants, via the sale of a special limited edition T-shirt, which featured the vacant plinth.

Ten Year's a Slave is a eulogy - to an agent provocateur, the power of artistry to make a difference, and a stand against the ills of our past.

With thanks to LazerGroup for their ongoing support of street art.

All artwork, text and images © James Straffon 2024.