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Radcliffe Bailey’s Levitate is a large work of mixed media, measuring 10 feet by 9.5 feet by half a foot—and the third dimension is critical. The listed depth of the work of art reflects a key fact: the ship at the center of the canvas is meant to float above the background. Only the width of the ship is officially counted in the display’s depth, not the length of the supports that attach the ship to the canvas behind it. The piece is designed to hide the physical link between the background tarp and the sequined black vessel that draws the viewer’s eye, creating the desired floating effect. As the official description from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University states, the work is meant to be:
spiritually evocative. The long vessel seen here is based on a fishing boat the artist first encountered when visiting Senegal. The object appears to float in front of the tarp, similar to the way a magician makes an assistant levitate. The black glitter that covers the boat recurs in Bailey’s works and is suggestive of the shimmering quality of Haitian Voodoo flags, which are covered in reflective sequins. The tarp in the background is marked with symbols that are derived from visual languages as diverse as Haitian veve, Yoruba and Kongo cosmology, and African American Carolina metalwork. Together these markings form a mystical navigational language of the artist’s creation, and the boat becomes a transcendent vessel that can carry one to another realm.
That Bailey’s work creates this transcendent effect is certain. But this rich work offers another interpretation that complements the analysis of the museum. The mottled effect of the tarp, with its dark browns lightening in different degrees, in some places almost white, creates the sense of peering through the surface of moving water into the depths. Seen this way, the various symbols described above take on a new meaning: they are transformed into things contained by the ocean.
Containment is an important theme to bring to bear on Bailey’s work given the interests that shape this digital project. In scholarship on slavery and the slave trade the ocean is often understood as both archive and tomb. Though “Levitate” was inspired by a fishing ship, much of Bailey’s work focuses on the Middle Passage, and it isn’t coincidental that Haiti, the Yoruba people and the former Kingdom of Kongo all have long histories with the slave trade. By putting these markings alongside “African American Carolina metalwork,” Bailey creates a network that spans distance and time, and whose connections can be thought of as taking place in the water.
The distance between the ship and the tarp accentuates this effect. The floating vessel isn’t only an ethereal presence at the heart of the work; it is also an invitation for the viewer to imagine himself in the boat, looking into the dark and ominous waters. It recreates the impression one has when seated in a boat, at once in the water and at some distance from it. With the dark colored background and the shining, sequined black ship, one can imagine being out on the water at night, or with a storm brewing. The sequins mimic the way light reflects off the water and dances on the side the vessel in dark conditions. Together with the fullness of the depths below, populated with the markings of diverse cultures and peoples, the tone of the piece is somber.
Perhaps the most striking details that help evoke this gloomy mood are the lines of red that appear at places in the water and as embroidering on the stitching of the all cardinal directions except South. Everything else on the canvas is dark or white, and the red immediately draws the eye. Among the many things which the water contains, the viewer should count trickles of blood. These red lines are incorporated into many of the objects on the tarp that indicate a direction, either because they are explicitly navigational, because they are part of an oriented geometric figure, or because they trace a line of movement. That the blood in the water is connected to movement and navigation again invites a connection to the slave trade.
Other aspects of the work are best understood along the lines sketched out by the official description. Elements that help “form a mystical navigational language” are scattered throughout the canvas. The cardinal directions are the most obvious for many onlookers, but also to be found are a star in the bottom right hand corner, an anchor in the upper right, and the Haitian, Yoruban and Kongolese symbols. Also in the upper right is a circle, divided into quarters and with another circle in each quadrant, which seems to be a piece of the metalwork to which the description refers. These diverse elements, along with the floating, shining boat, give a sense that the voyage being depicted has overcome traditional boundaries of geography and time by drawing on a long history shaped by different cultures and forms of navigation.
This sense of the role of navigation is also tied to the markers of movement in Bailey’s work. To begin, the work of art is composed in part of elements one would actually find on a ship. The heavy, patchwork tarp is reminiscent of a sail, with many of the lines from the geometric figures drawing the viewer’s attention to the patches themselves. The places where the tarp has been patched together evoke the work of sailing. Heavy ropes hang down either side of the lower part of the canvas, and the ship even has a small motor inside, complete with a propeller. The implied possibility of movement works alongside the previously mentioned and various arrows, lines, and oriented geometric figures, which represent flows very much like currents. The symbols of navigation and this sense of movement go hand in hand to create a compelling background for “a transcendent vessel that can carry one to another realm.”
What does it mean that one can read Levitate as about both transcendence and foreboding? First, it speaks to what a provocative work of art Radcliffe Bailey has created—it is a multivalent piece. Because of this complexity, the piece also taps into a larger conversation, one that is multivalent in its own right. In many of the projects one can explore on this website, and in scholarship on related issues more generally, the slave trade serves a double role: it is simultaneously the site of terrible tragedy and unexpected generativity. Levitate stands as a compelling manifestation of this doubled essence, at once about transcendence and escape and about the things that fall to the depths of the ocean.
Bailey’s next piece, entitled “Windward Coast,” is similarly multivalent and explicitly about the Middle Passage. The work is striking, with a man’s head, again in black sequins, surrounded by a sea of wooden debris. Though in some ways visually simple, the piece is conceptually complex. To begin, the title of the piece refers to a geographic area west of the Gold Coast. The Windward Coast is roughly in modern day Côte d’Ivoire, though it has been defined in slightly different ways. Historically rice was grown there, and it is thought that much of the knowledge needed to harvest the crop was transported to the United States by slaves from the region. By naming his piece this way, Bailey ensures that the man seen floating in the sea, the slave thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, has a history.
The title of the exhibition also warrants consideration. “Windward Coast,” first created in 2009, was part of a 2011 display called “Memory as Medicine” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Bailey works in a variety of media, and the exhibition featured 37 pieces of art “ranging from heroic to intimate scale, including installations, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, photos on metal, and works on paper.” His work “explores American history and memory to encourage healing and transcendence through art.”[i] The idea of “Memory as Medicine” taps into much the same complexity as “Levitate.” Bailey works with incidents of trauma, but seeks to present them in ways that will produce a sense of unity alongside the tragedy.
In the first video above, Bailey discusses some of the elements present in the piece that work toward this unifying effect. The sea of wooden debris that surrounds the man’s head is made up of thousands of piano keys, chosen by Bailey because of their “layers of meaning.” The keys themselves have a history that is tied to many people and sounds. Bailey says that in making the choice he was thinking about “sounds that come together” and “things that bond people.” Music, he says, “is the one thing that bonds people all around the world.” His choice to make the ocean in which the slave floats out of symbols of unity through music is striking. Bailey takes a series of histories and intertwines them. The history of the man thrown overboard, the history of the slave trade evoked by “Windward Coast,” and a global, layered history all converge in the piece. These are, undoubtedly, very different histories. One personal, though little is known about the figure in the water; one transatlantic; one global. Two tragic, one hopeful. The trajectory from personal tragedy through transatlantic tragedy to global unity and healing perfectly represents the work Bailey is trying to do: “Memory and Medicine.”
This multivalent conceit takes other forms. For example, the work also grapples with the issue of the power of water. Bailey indicates that a “fragment” of the “piece relates to New Orleans” and “other parts” relate “to what happened recently [the 2011 earthquake and tsunami] in Japan.” In addition to the tragedies of the slave trade, the artist imagines the work to take on contemporary valences—including, notably, a 2011 resonance for a 2009 piece, pointing to the dynamic, shifting nature of the art. And, at the end of the video, Bailey identities another central ambivalence, one that connects to both the sense of tragedy and the role of water. While the piece is specifically about “those who were lost at sea, who were fed to sharks during the Middle Passage,” it is also about a sense of “calm.” Bailey reflects on his experience fishing with his father, the vastness of the water and the calm it generates. The experience, he says, “can overwhelm you but, then at the same time you’re at peace with it. It’s like finding peace within chaos.” “Windward Coast” is about bringing all of these diverse elements together precisely so that the reference can move beyond tragedy to do the work of healing.
The second video is a time-lapse from the McNay Art Museum of San Antonio, where the work moved in 2012. Watching the video reveals a number of interesting things about the piece. First, the space in which it was displayed there differs from the original display in Atlanta. The work of art is, by its very nature, a changing thing, which can be altered to fit into spaces of different dimensions and configurations. In that sense, it is much like water itself. Bailey starts by placing the head and the work expands outward from there. The piano keys aren’t placed haphazardly; things are arranged and rearranged over the course of the video. Here too, one sees the versatility of the piece, the way it can offers multiple interpretive possibilities. It is at the same time a single, named piece of art and one that changes based on where it is displayed. It is simultaneously ordered and disordered, an arranged sea of wooden piano keys that together recreate the fluidity of water.
Having considered primarily the conceptual characteristics of the work, let us now turn briefly to a visual description. Only the man’s head is visible above the water. With eyes closed, and lips slightly open, it is difficult to tell what, precisely, is his emotional state. Is it a moment of resignation to what is to come? A moment of calm in the face of chaos, as Bailey suggests? Or is it a moment of exhaustion, with the man soon to succumb to his weariness and fall below? The black head contrasts sharply with the primarily white piano keys all around, all the more so because it shines in the same way as the vessel from “Levitate.” The arrangement of the keys gives a sense of motion that furthers the contrast with the stillness of the head. Everything about the work directs the viewer to consider the man’s face and to wonder about his psychological state. In doing so, the visual qualities of the work complement its conceptual qualities perfectly. At every level, Bailey manages to produce a sense of (perhaps unexpected) connection: across time and place, and from observer to observed.
Please click here to go to the next section: Jason de Caires Taylor
How to cite this page: Davide Carozza, “Radcliffe Bailey, “Levitate” and “Windward Coast”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)).
[i] Both quotes are drawn from the link above.