The team of artists known as the ‘Treatment Rooms Collective’ have embarked upon an ambitious project to entirely cover an iconic London black cab with intricate mosaic. Known as the ‘Voodoo Zulu Liberation Taxi’ the plan is that eventually it will travel around the World in a bid to raise awareness of the plight of its inspiration, an American prisoner called Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore.
According to the projects brainchild Carrie Reichardt the taxi will be “dripping with skulls and voodoo magic.” It will, says Carrie, be an eye catching call for action to help Kenny who, says the artist, is currently languishing behind the walls of a solitary confinement cell for up to 23 hours a day in one of America’s most notorious prisons.
Whitmore’s story is a tragic one, 23 hours a day in solitary doesn’t sound good, try doing that for 37 out of the last 40 years and this has become a situation which has caused Reichardt to campaign tirelessly for his release. The original conviction for the murder of Marshall Bond in 1973 having been questioned by many.
With money raised via a Kickstarter campaign, the collective have already surpassed the £5000 needed to complete the project. Covered in eye catching ceramic adornments and glass tiles the taxi will be quite a statement. “This taxi will be impossible to ignore as it travels the country and beyond as a messenger of Kenny’s story” says Carrie.
Calling on supporters to help raise awareness of Zulu’s case Reichardt said “Zulu’s incarceration has been characterised by the continuous silencing of the truth…This extreme and cruel punishment has been condemned worldwide and likened to extreme physiological torture.” Urging everyone to learn more about Zulu Whitmore and support the Zulu taxi on its journey she said “We want to shine a spotlight on the use of decades of solitary confinement as a means of torture and help in the campaign to win Zulu’s freedom. Our dream, and Zulu’s, is that one day soon we will bring him home in this taxi.”
Working from a mosaic covered studio in West London, it’s a hard place to miss. The building is covered from head to toe in mosaic. Reichardt has form, a leading contemporary artist she uses a combination of murals, ceramics, screen printing and graphic design in her work and often uses her work as a means of activism. Inspiring City visited the studio last year as part of our interview with fine artist turned street artist ATM. Also part of the collective known as the Treatment Rooms, ATM himself is a dab hand with a mosaic and indeed has contributed to the creation of the vehicle which also contains a portrait of Zulu on the bonnet.
Travelling once again to West London, the treatment rooms studio is a short walk from South Acton overground station and Carrie is working tirelessly to get as much of the taxi finished as she can prior to heading to the Standon Calling festival. It is here where it will receive its first official public outing albeit with a few bits left to finish, “there’s still a weeks work left to do on it” Carrie tells me as she applies yet more ceramic to the bodywork.
With her are local artists Wonnish and Weardoe, also part of the treatment rooms they too are working on the taxi. Not content with just applying ceramics to motor vehicles, the duo were last seen, by this blog at least, at the Femme Fierce festival earlier this year. That work, an abstract history of the women’s rights movement was one of the most thought provoking pieces from that epic gathering of artists. It was only once you managed to get really close to the piece that the story it was trying to tell managed to appear and that made it all the more memorable.
Looking now at the outside of the treatment rooms studio on Acton Road its easy to see the inspiration. Reichardt is well known for the way she is able to transfer images onto ceramics and this is something she has clearly passed on. The building itself is full of character, on the inside it is even more so. The workshop of the Treatment Rooms is a creatively chaotic mess.
Back to the taxi and it’s already looking impressive, once complete it will be even more so. The detail is everywhere you look from the bonnet with a portrait of Whitmore drawn by ATM to a quote on the back from the man himself which Carrie is currently applying the finishing touches to. Wonnish tells me that the vehicle is meant to be a talking point, “people stop and ask questions and when they do they learn about the story” she tells me.
Carrie had first learnt about the story of Zulu Whitmore in 2007. She’d been communicating for a while with Herman Wallace a prisoner who with two others became known as one of the Angola 3. Wallace too had been incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary after a conviction for armed robbery in 1971. He too had languished for years in solitary confinement only recently released after his conviction was overturned after over 40 years in the prison.
It was Wallace who drew her attention to Whitmore, she started a dialogue with him and then that was that. Reichardt believes that a lot of the reason for the excessive amount of time spent in solitary has been Whitmore’s former association with the group known as the black panthers. Explaining that membership of this particular group was a source of fear for prison authorities who thought that if kept within the general prison population their ideas might be “spread around”.
“These are a group of people who came together in the 1960’s” explains Carrie as she talks further about who the black panthers were. “They’re coming out of the civil rights movement, they’re coming out of a time when they saw people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinated… You have to also remember that the black panthers were also a youth movement, the average age was 17 and 18.”
American civil rights history not necessarily being a particular area of expertise of this blog we start to discuss the future of the taxi. Carrie has a favourite quote which she has emblazoned onto its boot, randomly from King Leopold of Belgium it says “beware artists they mix all levels of society and therefore are the most dangerous.” Written to Queen Victoria at the time of the building of the V&A Museum in Kensington Carrie likes it because “you never know where the vehicle will be invited to.”
That’s what’s lovely about my work and ceramics says Carrie. “Because of people’s appreciation of craft, it gets into places where it really shouldn’t and the politics become secondary to the workmanship of the actual art piece. We’ve made something that is highly skilled, a huge amount of craft and a huge amount of love has gone into this to try and make something that is so appealing aesthetically that you’re drawn to it and when you’re drawn to it you can discover the meaning and the hidden politics around it. I’ve always found that when people come to look at something from an aesthetic point of view they are more open to reading it and looking at it and taking it in.
The Treatments Rooms in South Action were visited on Monday 27 July 2015. Present were Carrie Reichardt, Wonnish and Weardoe who were all working on the taxi.