Marcus Rashford taking the knee on the football pitch | Licensed from Alamy


Opening of Taking the Knee exhibition coincides with renewed backlash against the gesture

An exhibition shining a light on the history of ‘taking the knee’ launches today, with the help of the University of Hull.

The exhibition is part of ongoing community engagement work between the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for Slavery and Emancipation, Hull Museums, and people from racially marginalised communities, in the city.

According to Senior Lecturer in Diaspora History, Dr Nick Evans, of the Wilberforce Institute, the launch of the exhibition is timely as Home Secretary Suella Braverman, this week announced her review ‘into activism and impartiality’ within police forces – which will include an evaluation of officers taking the knee.

Dr Evans said: “Taking the knee has a history dating back millennia, it is only in more recent centuries that the pose has taken on more political connotations. It was in the 1780s that it was first politicised in a way that we can understand today, when images of an enslaved man kneeling, were used by those campaigning for the abolition of the British slave trade.

“The opening of this exhibition, which is co-created with members of racially marginalised communities, couldn’t be more timely, as public discourse about the gesture continues because of the Home Secretary’s review into policing, and her letter to policing leaders which set out her expectation that the police should focus on tackling crime, rather than being involved in political matters.”

The exhibition features contemporary images of people taking the knee including one of England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, and one of Steph Houghton, who has captained the England Women’s national football team.

There is also a powerful image of American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who was joined by teammates as he took the knee during the American national anthem before a match in 2016. He later said he could not stand to show pride in the flag of a country that oppressed black people. It was this powerful and contentious gesture, borrowed from the Civil Rights movement, that has since been emulated in sport and at protests making it synonymous with opposition to oppression and racism. It was Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee which spawned public debate about the gesture.

Taking the knee is something that's of value, it is about seeking justice and solidarity.

Karen Okra

community activist

Dr Evans said: “Kneeling on one knee has been used, all around the world, for anything from a convenient posture, a significant gesture, through to making a political statement. It can be a symbol of solidarity and respect, or even mobilise support and fuel opposition.

“Three years ago, as Black Lives Matter debates arose around the world, few people referenced the historical precedence of people taking the knee in solidarity with racial and political equality throughout history. The communities we have worked with have not only opened our eyes to how racism blights lives today, but also to taking the knee throughout the world from the Civil Rights era in America to the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. We hope visitors will all learn something from this wonderful exhibition."

The exhibition charts the pose from Ancient Egyptian times when it was a greeting to the rising sun. It includes a striking image from 1787, when the Society for the Effectual Abolition of the Slave Trade engaged potter Josiah Wedgewood to design a motif for their supporters to use. The now famous image shows a chained man on one knee with his hands clasped as if praying or begging for mercy.

This exhibition was jointly researched by people who have all taken the knee.

Stella Munthali, Founder and director of 'The Black Heritage of Hull' and part of the exhibition group said: “It's important that we learn about taking the knee because society is increasingly fragmented, disparity between opinions on a symbol that is supposed to represent solidarity means that people who question taking the knee still have learning to do.”

Karen Okra, a community activist from Hull, who also worked on the exhibition said: "Taking the knee is something that's of value, it is about seeking justice and solidarity. This exhibition is open to people to explore what their thoughts are. This opens conversations and this is the most important thing in life. Standing united, in this instance, challenges injustice. Taking the knee for me is standing in solidarity."

Ali Bodley, of Bodley Heritage, who facilitated in the process of curating the exhibition, said: “Taking the Knee has been a powerful project. It’s been a privilege to hear how people really feel and help the participants curate this it into an amazing exhibition. Focusing with honesty on such a challenging subject has created a very strong bond amongst the team. It’s fantastic to have been part of it.”

The exhibition is funded by The University of Hull and Arts Council England. It runs from Thursday 7 September to Friday  1 November at Hull’s Streetlife Museum, in the city’s Museum Quarter.


Image credit: Anthony Devlin Photography / Alamy

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