Artworks invite us to weigh up debt’s burdens

Thought-provoking works by artists from four continents feature in a university exhibition offering wide-ranging perspectives on the crushing effects of debt.


The Accursed Share at Talbot Rice Gallery seeks to address the injustices and inequality that indebtedness creates while celebrating attempts to resist its impact.

Nine artists take a far-reaching look at the subject, touching on malpractices that have exacerbated debt, such as land appropriation, colonialism and slavery past and present.

Promising to ‘reclaim economics’ from abstract theory, each of the artists has produced work that engages with the social and political realms.

Vibrant survival

Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid has created hand-painted life-size figures of the anonymous black slaves included in historic European paintings as symbols of wealth. Her work is a reminder of Europe’s debt to slavery, yet also a celebration of vibrant survival.

Filmmaker Marwa Arsanios chronicles the efforts of a group of women in Lebanon to liberate an area of land and turn it into a common space. The film charts the complex process of reinvigorating a landscape damaged by colonialism, civil war and privatisation.

Sammy Baloji has potted 50 copper gun shells with plants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Katanga region. For Katanga native Baloji, copper mined from the region symbolises the history of African traditions being smashed by a drive to establish free trade.

State power

Moyra Davey focuses on the humble copper cent, minted in the US since 1909. Captured on a macro lens, Davey’s images expose the physical flaws in these iconic objects. Silent and stoic, they seem caught between worthlessness and value, lumpen metal and state power.

Cian Dayrit’s work maps how corruption, past and present, has affected the Philippines. Referencing Dutch trade, US and Chinese military manoeuvres and the actions of the ruling elite and giant corporations, it lays bare the human cost of an oppressive system of debt.

Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby bought land at a former Belgian coal mine to explore both meanings of ‘plot’ – a piece of ground and a storyline. Their response features a portable box holding title deeds and verse by Belgium’s poet Laureate, whose father worked there.


Nature’s indifference

Hanna von Goeler’s images of birds, painted on defunct banknotes, speak of nature’s indifference to human territories, as well as its vulnerability. Strangely beautiful, these notes convey remarkable visions of civilisation, statehood and what is ultimately of value.

Hana Miletić creates painstaking textile reproductions of things that often go unseen. They remind us of notions of debt distinct from money: the debt we owe to mothers, mentors and society. Each piece hints at a world that refuses to be out-sourced or mass-produced.

Art collective Terra0 set out in 2016 to create a ‘technically augmented forest’ – armed with artificial intelligence and able to trade digital currencies – so it might survive in the face of harmful economic practices. Seven years on, their quest to empower ecosystems continues.

Radical theory

The Accursed Share takes its title from the 1949 book by French intellectual Georges Bataille, which proposed a radical economic theory called ‘general economy’. 

Exhibition curator James Clegg says The Accursed Share has important questions to ask of us all – particularly at a time of spiralling global debts and escalating living costs.

“It seeks to reclaim the idea of debt from the economic sphere,” says Mr Clegg, “and put people, places and communities at the heart of conversations about what we really owe one another.”

The Accursed Share takes place at the Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, from 18 March to 27 May 2023. Admission is free.


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Talbot Rice Gallery

Photos by Neil Hanna