The Middle Passage was the central stage of the triangular slave-trade route between Europe, Africa and the Americas whereby Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic. It was the scene of appalling conditions of confinement, death and terror, and involved barbaric acts such as throwing slaves overboard to drown. Reconstructing the Middle Passage examines how contemporary artists have revisited this historical trauma, embarking on a process of imaginative recovery.
In various ways, artists have addressed the lack of historical records of these crossings, above all from the point of view of the slaves. In addition, they have explored the dislocation from the history and cultures of Africa, and loss of cultural memory and identity, that resulted from enslavement. To fill these gaps, artists have taken history itself as the subject of their work, treating it as a creative exercise to tell individual stories and propose universal truths. Through this process, they have often drawn together the history of journeys and migrations from different eras.
This room reflects Paul Gilroy’s idea of the ship as both a symbol of the Black Atlantic and the mobile means by which it became linked. In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher explores a mythical ‘Black Atlantis’, a fictional underwater world populated by a marine species descended from drowned slaves. The work of Keith Piper draws a parallel between the migrations of slavery and post-war immigration, while in his Western Union Series no. 1 (Cast No Shadow) 2007 Isaac Julien addresses latter-day migrations from Africa.