This Week in London – Christmas Tree lighting goes virtual; Ottobah Cugoano’s Blue Plaque; and, see ‘Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage’ online…

The Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square in 2017. PICTURE: Raphaël Chekroun (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

The traditional Trafalgar Square tree lighting ceremony has gone virtual for the first time this year due to coronavirus restrictions. The online event, which will be held at 6pm on 3rd December via YouTube and Facebook, will include messages from the Lord Mayor of Westminster and the Mayor of Oslo as well as information on the history behind the gift of the tree, footage of its journey from the forests of Norway to London, and performances from the Salvation Army, the Poetry Society and the St Martin-in-the-Fields Choir. While the tree felling ceremony in Norway is usually attended by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, this year COVID restrictions meant he was represented by the British Ambassador to Norway, Richard Wood, who was joined by the Mayor of Oslo, Marianne Borgen, and school children from Maridalen school in Oslo, to witness the tree begin its journey to London. A Norwegian spruce has been given by the people of Oslo to the people of the UK in thanks for their support during World War II in the lead-up to every Christmas since 1947. Once the tree arrives in London, it is decorated with Christmas lights in a traditional Norwegian manner.  For more on the tree, see westminster.gov.uk/trafalgar-square-christmas-tree.

Eighteenth century anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano – a former slave himself – has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque. The plaque is located at Schomberg House at 80–82 Pall Mall, the property where he was employed as a servant by artists Richard and Maria Cosway. It was while living here in the 1780’s that Cugoano wrote the book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, one of the first black-authored anti-slavery books to be published in Britain. The house was actually mentioned in the frontispiece of the 1787 edition of Thoughts and Sentiments as one of the places where copies of the book might be obtained. It is, says English Heritage, “evidence of the Cosways’ support for their servant’s endeavours as an author and a campaigner”. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

Somerset House is offering virtual tours of its exhibition Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage. The exhibition is the first major retrospective of the work of Alaoui, a celebrated French-Moroccan photographer, video artist and activist who died in a terrorist attack at the age of 33 while working on a photography project promoting women’s rights in Burkina Faso in 2016. ​  ​Guided by award-winning broadcaster and cultural commentator Ekow Eshun, the tour of the exhibition takes in three of the artist’s defining series – No Pasara, which documents the lives of North African migrants trying to reach Europe; Natreen (We Wait), which follows families trying to flee the Syrian conflict, and Les Marocains, which, inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans, meets the many individuals who make up the multifaceted fabric of contemporary Morocco.  The exhibition also includes an unfinished video project L’Ile du Diable ​(Devil’s Island) which Alaoui was working at the time of her death, featuring dispossessed migrant workers at the old Renault factory in Paris.  The free tour can be accessed at www.somersethouse.org.uk/blog/virtual-tour-leila-alaoui-rite-passage.

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