Survey by Qualaroo

Sailing the Black Atlantic: Ships in the artworks of Yinka Shonibare and Keith Piper

As we near the end of the Seeds of Change: A Floating Ballast Seed Garden autumn programme we hear from art historian, Elizabeth Robles, from the University of Bristol who recently led a tour of the garden. Robles used some of the ideas from the project, in particular shipping and migration, to explore the role ships play in the works of two very different contemporary artists, Yinka Shonibare and Keith Piper. She was especially interested in the concept of trans-Atlantic exchange in the cycles of the 'Black Atlantic'...

When I was approached to create a boat tour in dialogue with the Ballast Seed Garden project two images immediately sprang into my mind.  The first was Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010), commissioned for the fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square (pictured) and now in situ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  The second was Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man (1987), an earlier work that, though owned by the Tate and recently on display as a part of the Migrations: Journeys into British Art exhibition (January – August, 2012), tends to live in storage.  I had come across each of these works whilst researching my PhD project at the University of Bristol and, though outside of its remit, they had stayed with me – mentally earmarked for some other undertaking.

Contextualised by Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the works initiated a rich and interesting dialogue with the Seed Garden Project. The image of the ship – a vessel for the exchange of people, ideas, aesthetics and cultural artefacts – lies at the root of this dialogue. From the slave ships of the middle passage to warships crewed by black sailors, post-war immigrant vessels such as the Empire Windrush and the latter-day migrations and human trafficking from North Africa and across the Caribbean, the ship is a symbol of trans-national movement, dislocation and exchange. However, what struck me about these works was a shared interest in examining the continued effects and implications of the ship.  Rather than just transporting goods or people from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’, these works consider the outcomes of returning them or of taking them via ‘point C’ – in short, the ship here is a mobile element that stands for the shifting spaces between fixed locations of here and there; past and present; coloniser and colonised; orient and occident.

Keith Piper is an artist, educator and cultural activist currently based in London.  As a student at Trent Polytechnic – what is now Nottingham Trent University – in the early 1980s Piper, together with fellow artists Marlene Smith, Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney created the BLK Art Group. They exhibited, along with Claudette Johnson, in The Pan-Afrikan Convention: An Exhibition of Work by Young Black Artists- Good Ideals at 35 King Street Gallery, Bristol, and convened ‘The First National Black Art Convention’ at Wolverhampton Polytechnic to discuss the form, function and future possibilities of black art in Britain. In 1987’s ‘Go West Young Man’ Piper brings together multiple histories of migration from slavery to post-war immigration as a series of composite posters exploring the horrors of the ‘middle passage’ in relation to his own experiences of racism in Britain.  The image of the ship in this work is a historical illustration of the slave ship ‘Brookes’ – an image widely used by campaigners for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Though it was first designed in Plymouth in 1788 by the Plymouth chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave trade, it has since become an iconic image and a lasting testimony to the inhumanity of that institution. It portrayed slaves arranged in the ship in accordance with the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. The Brooks was reportedly allowed to stow 454 African slaves, text on the poster asserts a testimony of a slave trader who confesses that before the Act, the Brookes had carried as many as 609 slaves at one time. However, obscured beneath the image of the historical ship and the text (Go West Young Man!), are the faint traces of photographs taken from the media coverage of 1980s urban unrest. The black bodies lined up so neatly – cargo packed precisely – come to life in these photographs.  They shout, they demonstrate and they throw things.  They rebel against the systems and institutions that created slavery and continued to promulgate the hierarchies and inequalities of racism in 1980s Britain.

Like Piper, Shonibare appropriates the image of a historical ship inexorably linked to British naval history. However, whilst Piper reframes an image of a ship connected to the history of the slave trade as an extension of the colonial project, Shonibare reflects on a ship entrenched in military victory and national pride.  Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is a 1:30 scale replica of Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, on which he died during the battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, 1805.  It has 80 canons and 37 sails set as on the day of battle. The only difference is in the textile of the sails, which are made from the Dutch wax fabric commonly associated with a ‘traditional’ African aesthetic. Whilst the textiles carry associations of African authenticity, the history of Dutch-wax is woven through with threads of exchange facilitated by colonial trade.          

Produced in the mid-nineteenth century by Dutch fabric manufacturers for trade in the Dutch East Indies, the printed cottons first came about as industrially mass produced versions of traditional batiks.  Despite their attempts, however, the veining and spotting that resulted from the industrial process produced textiles that were considered inferior to locally hand-made products and failed to gain traction in Indonesian markets.  By the 1870s, Dutch-wax print cottons were introduced to parts of Africa as local soldiers returned home from Indonesia, where as colonials they served in the Dutch army, bringing with them the new ‘Eastern batik.’ During this period, new manufacturing firms sprang up in the UK, many of them in Manchester, where a predominantly Asian workforce produced designs inspired by Indonesian batiks and traditional African textiles.

The popularity of Dutch-wax print fabrics redoubled in the wake of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s when the history of the textiles, steeped in the circuitry of colonial economic trade, was supplanted by the myth of their authenticity.  Despite their transnational and trans-cultural origins, they became a signal of post-colonial cultural nationalism.  They functioned as a way of both ‘holding on’ to one's identity and roots and as a tool with which to construct an identity and connection with an ‘authentic’ Africa.   In working with the Dutch-wax print fabrics, Shonibare undoubtedly invokes these themes.  However, he resists an explicit deconstruction of this myth of authenticity by playing with doubling and mimesis. During the boat tour the question of Shonibare’s complicity in the fabric’s myth was raised and the group considered the implications of the lack of signage or public acknowledgement of it.  Although some members of the group were familiar with the transnational routes involved in the continued production of the fabric, most agreed that it was one element of the project that was easily missed when viewed in situ by passersby or viewers unfamiliar with Shonibare’s work.  

Indeed, the fabric was a primary point of conversation as we wrapped things up on the floating seed garden.  Shonibare makes a point of purchasing fabrics sold in Brixton, south London, which in most of the literature surrounding his practice is purported to be made in England and elsewhere in Europe. Barring a few examples, he purposefully avoids textiles produced in Africa ‘so that all African implications remain fake’. However, as one group member pointed out, many of those fabrics sold now in Brixton market are no longer produced in Dutch and English factories but in China.  Whilst some lamented the diminishing trade in African or European made textiles, this new development seemed to provide another link in the trans-national chain of exchange, consumption and appropriation that has defined the development of Dutch-wax textiles.      

The ship in each of these works represents a historical vessel. Though for Shonibare and Piper this takes that shape of specific vessels implicated in the history of the British empire, it is no less true of the Ballast Seed Garden which invokes the memory of the many ships and vessels that came and went from the harbourside here at Bristol that also, each in some small way, buoyed the economic and military might of the Empire. In their own way, each artist brings to light and explores the secondary, perhaps unintended or unforeseen, historical, political, social and economic consequences of the transportation that is the ships’ primary function. They activate the imagery of the ship to create a dialogue between the past and the present, the ‘coloniser’ and the ‘colonised’, the west and the ‘other’. As Gilroy writes, ‘They [are] something more – the ship provides a chance to explore the articulations between the discontinuous histories of England’s ports, its interfaces with the wider world.’

Elizabeth Robles, Art Historian. Department of History of Art, University of Bristol 

Join us for the final boat tour of the season? Book online here.

FFI on Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change project here 

Filed under: ,
Friday 25 October 2019 to Saturday 26 October 2019, 19:30 to 21:30

£12/10 Book

Hardware. Software. Wetware. Witness a cyborg goddess, and confront your ultimate fear - the rising up of the ...