“Middle Passage,” “Middle Passage II,” “Middle Passages #5,” “Great America,” “Absolut Power,” “Afro-American Express”: Reflections

I chose the paintings I did⎯ “Absolut Power,” “Afro-American Express,” “Middle Passages #5,” “Middle Passage” and “Middle Passage II,” and “Great America” because together they provide a comprehensive account of the collective memory of the Middle Passage, and how it evolves with modernity. With Morrison’s paintings, we have the deepest connection to the Middle Passage as is possible⎯the viewer becomes the slave, and in viewing the painting, undergoes that experience. It’s also a fairly traditional medium; oil on canvas, with nothing particular bizarre or avant-garde stylistically. Kara Walker’s piece is a natural progression from Morrison’s; it’s relatively classically rendered, with the exception of how the central figure is cut. Thematically it’s also more abstract than Morrison’s works; while his are stylistic, nothing is unrealistic. In Walker’s painting, a young girl is riding on a palm tree in the middle of the ocean. The contemporary (a franker view of history, as well as a contemporary aesthetic) has begun to be introduced.

Next Is Marshall’s “Great America”; it retains a somewhat traditional element, but moves beyond Kara Walker’s piece; while both are mixed media, Walker’s piece cannot be placed in a specific time, whereas the carnival element and the “WOW” (a modern word), place Marshall’s more firmly in the contemporary. Moreover, Marshall’s comments on the work (“Black people always have to wonder, when did America become great for black folks?”) point to the fact that the work is meant to be taken as after a certain amount of time since the Middle Passage—America certainly didn’t purport itself to be ‘great for black folks’ in the 17th century. And we end with “Absolut Power” and “Afro-American Express”; these works evoke the modern so utterly that the viewer has to be reminded of the change in the image, that they are in fact depictions of the past. Williams’ two pieces are also the ones that, in this collection, juxtapose the past and the present most boldly.

The last pieces, the more contemporary ones, confront the legacy of the middle passage the most strongly; while each work sends a message, it is the more contemporary ones that force us to recognize how far we haven’t come. And in that is the importance of historical art; in facing a visual rendering of the past, we are forced to acknowledge things we might otherwise persuade ourselves to forget. Works like those of Morrison, in which we’re literally placed in the position of a slave, or of Thomas, in which the seemingly antiquated and the modern are placed side by side, don’t allow us to ignore the past. Through examining works like these, we can hopefully better our understanding of slavery, and of the Middle Passage– and better work towards eradicating the poisonous traces that that period has left on our society.

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