A new permanent artwork commemorating the 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano has been unveiled at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. Cugoano was one of the most prominent abolitionists of 18th century London and a significant but largely forgotten figure in Black British history.
To mark the anniversary, Trinidad-based artist Che Lovelace was selected to create a new artwork to be installed in the entrance of the church. Seen by all visitors to St James’s it will be the first permanent art commission to commemorate Cugoano’s life anywhere in the world.
Lovelace paints the intersecting lives of the people and natural beauty of Trinidad. Infused with rich colours and bold shapes, his paintings straddle the boundary between magical realism, abstraction and the beauty of the natural world.
Quobna Ottobah Cugoano described his personal experience of being trafficked at the age of 13 to work on a plantation in Grenada and bought by a merchant to England where he gained his freedom in 1772, in his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery published in 1787. His baptism, in 1773, was an act which promised his ongoing freedom however he didn’t live long enough to see slavery abolished by the UK Parliament. With his exact dates of birth and death unknown, Cugoano’s baptism on 20 August 1773 at St James’s is the only place and date that is clearly and verifiably part of his story.
Lovelace was selected by a process led by curator Ekow Eshun and involving members of the church’s congregation and clergy. The commission is supported by generous donations from international lawyer and philanthropist Dr Tai-Heng Cheng and his husband, gallerist Mr Cole Harrell, both American Friends of St James’s Piccadilly. The commission is part of St James’s cultural programme overseen by Creative Director Richard Parry, previously Director, Glasgow International.
The commission is the cornerstone of St James’s programme of events commemorating Cugoano’s baptismal anniversary year, which includes:
Friday 22 September – artist Che Lovelace ‘In Conversation’ with Rector of St James’s Lucy Winkett
Thursday 5 October – Author Ben Okri will read from recent works and discuss the legacy and resonance of Cugoano today with writer and curator Ekow Eshun
Saturday 7 October – Visualising Britain’s Black Past an evening exploring the life, legacy and contemporary resonance of Ottobah Cugoano. Desirée Baptiste will perform her short play, Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, inspired by a 1723 letter from an anonymous enslaved Virginian discovered in Lambeth Palace Library. Screening of Palimpsest: Tales Spun From Sea And Memories by Billy Gerard Frank artist-film maker and shown in the Grenada National Pavilion at 59th Venice Biennale. Followed by a panel discussion led by curator Ekow Eshun exploring the life, legacy and contemporary resonance of Ottobah Cugoano with the artists joined by Paterson Joseph, actor and author of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho (2022).
Saturday 14 October – Julianknxx presents a special performance with a choir songs which echo the notion of ‘flight’ in relation to Africa, coinciding with his exhibition Chorus in Rememory of Flight at Barbican
Also during this season at St James’s,
Thursday 21 September – The Roberts Institute of Art presents: ‘Hey, Maudie’, a new performance commission by Rachel Jones which draws on the operatic form alongside poetry, wide-ranging music and oral traditions.
10-12 October – Royal Academy: Class of 2025 Group Exhibition
A group exhibition of new work in the church, responding to the context of St James’s.
Friday 13 October, from 1pm – Ignota Gathering: The Spiral. A day of dialogues, collaborations and performances under the theme of the spiral, symbolising the movement of consciousness and the constant change and evolution of the universe. Pre-sale tickets here
For over ten years St James’s has developed a reputation for presenting surprising, challenging, charged creative work that engages audiences in subjects close to the Church’s values, for example Justin Butcher’s installation for Bethlehem Unwrapped (2013), Arabella Dorman’s Flight (2015) and Suspended (2017), Glasgow-based Iranian artist Iman Tajik’s installation Radical Welcome for the 2022 Embark Festival, and Jesse Darling’s commission Miserere (2022), ahead of the artist being shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize.
Considered “The Artists’ Church”, the relationship between St James’s and the Royal Academy is long and deep. The Rector, today the Reverend Lucy Winkett, is Chaplain to the RA and the church hosts the annual Varnishing Day service following a procession along Piccadilly marking the opening of the Summer Exhibition.
Che Lovelace, born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1969, joins St James’s history of connection with artists and creatives. Considered amongst Sir Christopher Wren’s finest churches, and housing a remarkable reredos carved by Grinling Gibbons, St James’s is the place where Angelica Kauffman, one of the founders of the Royal Academy, was married in 1767. Caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) and portraitist Mary Beale (1633-1699) were buried in the courtyard. William Blake (1757-1827) was baptised in the Grinling Gibbons font and Mary Delany (1700-1788), an artist who created intricate ‘paper mosaiks’ of botanical specimens, has a memorial (although sadly only recognising her as a daughter and wife and not for her creativity).
Describing the newly commissioned work:
Che Lovelace said “Having the opportunity to be part of the legacy of Ottobah Cugoano is truly significant and meaningful. To see St James’s Church, Piccadilly honour his name and what he stood for, is also to bear witness to an evolving story; one where our societies acknowledge and account for, not only the traumatic episodes of our shared histories; but also finds spaces and moments where the human potential for renewal, growth and transcendence is given importance and is truly celebrated.”
Lucy Winkett, Rector said “The baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano at St James’s Church Piccadilly in 1773 is one of the only places and times that can with confidence be ascribed to this influential abolitionist. It is therefore our duty and honour to mark the 250th anniversary with art commissions, commemorative events and gatherings. More importantly though, in learning from the complicities of the past, to work for the change that Cugoano could see so clearly, which is still needed today.”
Ekow Eshun, said “Quobna Ottobah Cugoano is a significant figure in the evolution of Britain as a society that speaks with many voices and from many perspectives. This new commission by Che Lovelace underscores the important role that art can play in addressing the complexity of our shared past with nuance, insight and creative ambition.”
Cole Harrell said: “We both feel a deep connection to the St James’s Church and are honored to be a part of this exciting project. We hope the new commission by Che Lovelace will help to shed light on Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, his monumental legacy, and allow us all a moment of reflection, not just on past traumas, but also on our potential for growth and empathy.”
Tai-Heng Cheng added: “We were moved by the long-standing commitment of St James’s Church to being a place of solace and inspiration to people of all backgrounds and faiths, which is so needed at a time when societies around the world seem more brittle than before. We hope that the installation of Che Lovelace’s commission commemorating Cugoano will not only benefit those who can come to the church, but serve as an example of how religious institutions can help bring communities together and celebrate both our differences and common humanity.”