Colonialism is the root, slavery the method, and brutality the nature of the Middle Passage. This passage was twofold: the initial capture or kidnapping of Africans in the African interior and forced march to the coast, and the “point of no return.” The latter part entailed a months-long voyage in cargo-tight quarters, horrible sanitary conditions and treatment, and a high mortality rate. Undeniably, the Middle Passage and institutional use of slavery in North America entailed brutality, an inhuman interaction between races. Art critic and philosopher Diderot describes that there was nothing just in this systematic treatment, rather that

“colonial empires frequently become the sites of extreme brutality because the colonists are far away from legal institutions and informal sanctions and this weakens the habits of restraint, exposing natural man’s full instinct for violence.”

Walker’s work confronts this capacity, this perverse underbelly of human nature which prompted mankind to kidnap and sell its own kind to others who purchased and abused those same humans as objects of labor. The network of the Middle Passage is riddled with traces, ghosts and memories of the trauma and brutality of the period. The black, grey, and white schema by which Walker fleshes her world has significance not only in ethnic connotation but in its connection to negatives and photography. The slave trade was banned, in part, through the influence of images of slavery in woodcut, etching, or photography that were disseminated in the 18th and 19th centuries by abolitionists and documentarians.

 

Wood engraving of a ship shown by William Wilburforce to the House of Commons to describe the conditions of the Middle Passage and the slave ships. Source: wikicommons

The slave ship itself is a significant artifact, an object remembrance and connection to the dark history of the Middle Passage. Though few known ships remain – decaying at the bottom of the ocean – and fewer are closely studied, the slave ship is a physical symbol, an image and metonymic representation of the entire system of slave trade. These ships were most often modified from pre-existing ships, the vast majority of which were never intended to transport human “cargo”. Modifications included netting on deck to prevent captives’ escape (or untimely death) and a barricado (literal: wall) was built to separate the upper from lower deck where slaves would be brought for air, enforced exercise (so-called “dancing,” at the pain of a whip), and meals. Slave ships, docking in West Africa before the infamous “Middle Passage,” commenced their journeys with a series of negotiations with slave traders. Typically alcoholic cargo, or other goods were traded, thus removed to obtain, and make room for “human cargo.” The bartering we see in Walker’s etching, between assumed colonist and native, holds parallels to this negotiation between slave ship captain and slave trader. Walker implies instead of the historical construction of the first Thanksgiving that these trades were less personal, amiable, and at base capitalistic. In this light, the “native” figure reveals vulnerability in its seeming offering up the gift of corn. The “colonist” stands relaxed, smoking a pipe, so that the viewer might imagine him dreaming of the future of this “New World” and its likely profits.

 

Walker’s etching serves as a kind of photographic negative of history: the inversion of reality into black and white plays with identity politics, in which race serves as a hierarchical marking of social identity. The negative also brings to light the darker aspects of American history, the uneasy past which might easily be obscured by brighter, and more recent events. What makes the referential use of the Middle Passage  poignant for Walker is the inescapable legacy of slavery in America. It is a legacy which her work continually exposes for its violence, in a constant coming-to-terms with a past incongruous with the present. As an artist, she questions whether she can create an aesthetically-pleasing, notable artwork while yet delving into significant themes of identity and memory. This work is an active uprooting of memory, a literal pulling out of the water the ship of her past, representing the burden of race she bears with her. And if the hands which hold up the ship are hers, then so too can the viewer see the submerged body as Walker. Her race’s memory, subsumed by time, weather, and water, struggles under the waves, a few spare bubbles escaping to remind the viewer that it is yet alive and struggling through the force of Walker’s work.

 

¹Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.

²Kohn, Margaret. “Colonialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring ed. 2014. Web.

³Webster, Jane. “The Material Culture of Slave Shipping.” Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum. Ed. Douglas J. Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth. Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007. 104-17. Print.

 

QUESTION

How can an artist represent horror, brutality, or unseeable aspects of history through her art? How can art serve as a vehicle to comprehension of unrelatable history?


FURTHER SOURCES


 

Depictions of the Middle Passage and the Slave Trade in Visual Art,” Written by Lindsey Barrett and Davide Carozza (2014), Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University. Web.

Hamilton, Douglas J., and Robert J. Blyth, eds. Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum. Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007. Print.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.