Do You See It Now?

What do we see when we visit museums? Generally, visits to art exhibits consist of aimlessly wandering around looking and reading plaques and appreciating the aesthetic value of the works. But what does the viewer miss when only looking at the surface level? Art is very symbolic; not everything is as it appears. There are hidden connotations and meanings in almost everything in the art world. Is it possible that when appreciating what we first see in a work of art, we miss a racially charged underlayer? With context and awareness of this possible racial aspect of art, we might find that race plays a role in some of our most beloved works.

A good place to start is with British painter J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship. It was first exhibited in 1840 and is part of the period of Romanticism. The oil painting is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When first encountering the painting, Turner’s deep sunset captures the viewer, the bleeding red and orange barely pointing to the ship in the left background. The painting is seemingly a chaotic wash of colors and water, turbulence and beauty. But, with closer examination, one starts to pick out body parts among the waves—a leg in the bottom right corner cuffed with a chain, fish and seagulls circling it as if ready for a feast.

With some context, the true atrocity of this painting comes to light. It is believed that Turner was inspired by an event in 1781 called the Zong massacre. One hundred and thirty-three slaves were thrown overboard a British ship called the Zong because of a lack of drinking water and proper preparation for the journey across the Atlantic. The captain, Luke Collingwood, made this decision partly based on saving the lives of the rest on board and partly due to the insurance compensation he knew he would receive for the loss of “cargo.” When arriving at their destination in Jamaica, the insurers refused to pay. The issue eventually came to trial in the famous Gregson v. Gilbert (1783) case which held that, in some cases, even purposeful harm towards slaves required compensation from the insurers. This context further reveals Turner’s exhibition date, which coincided with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Even though slavery in Britain had been abolished in 1833, Turner believed the British should be doing more to support efforts to outlaw slavery around the world. This can be seen in the ambiguity of The Slave Ship, the name of the work lacks specificity and so does the depiction. There are no clear markers that this is a British ship. This could be Turner’s way of saying it really could be any country’s ship, the problem is not just Britain. In this work of art, we not only find a surprising undertone of race and racial equality from a white artist but also a message of proactivism. With context, Turner’s The Slave Ship becomes much more than just a Romantic nature scene, it became a piece of political protest.  

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, and barely thirty years later, the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner was trying to make a name for himself. While Tanner grew up in Pennsylvania among the highly-educated and rising African-American intelligentsia, his mother was a former slave who escaped to the north via the Underground Railroad. Tanner could never truly escape the legacy of slavery through his education in America and Europe, and throughout his career in the art world. His oil painting The Banjo Lesson (1893, Realism) is another example of something we might pass by in a museum, remarking on its soft brush strokes and warm depiction of a grandfather and his grandson, but not fully realizing its intentions. Looking past Tanner’s background and his personal struggle which motivated much of his artwork, the painting itself is threaded with imagery and messages about the African American experience after the Civil War. The scene, staged in a small log cabin, stems from Tanner’s time spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he saw first hand the poverty of the black population in Appalachia. Yet, the painting conveys a picture of resilience and spirituality. The warm light of a fireplace on the right side cast the faces of the subjects in a warm glow, highlighting the boy’s focus on his grandfather’s instruction. The grandfather in turn holds the banjo lightly at the neck, but lets the boy hold the body of the instrument on his own. It’s as if the grandfather guides the boy but encourages him to feel the fruits of his own labor, to come to the realization that his own work will produce what he hears. Some art historians even claim the piece represents the idea that future generations will build on the legacy of the past. This can be seen through the light placement; the majority of the light hitting the boy and the grandfather being cast in shadows. The grandfather, cast in cool grays and blues, is the past, the old America of slavery, fraught by civil war, oppression, and racism. But the boy, bathed in warm yellows and bright whites, is the new America of hope, freedom, and opportunity.

Depictions of slavery and the struggles of African Americans aren’t the only instances where racial undertones expressed in art may go unnoticed. Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa’s watercolor painting The Bayou (1943, Internment art) seems to be a typical impressionistic watercolor landscape. The warm orange, brown, and green colors create an inviting landscape of a lake and a cabin, bordered by lush foliage. And, while there isn’t much else to the painting, the context and story behind it changes its connotation immensely. In 1943, when Asawa created this painting, she was living at a Japanese internment camp at the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, California. Asawa talks of the horrible conditions she, her mother, and her siblings were made to live in; staying in two horse stalls for five months with only the items they could carry from their house. Eventually, they were transferred to an internment camp in Arkansas. The painting depicts an idyllic and picturesque nature scene, a common theme among internment art, used as a form of escapism. Painting for Asawa was a much needed relief from the cruelty of life during that time period. The Bayou, while seemingly a pretty watercolor, is actually a representation of a much darker period in American history.

We are now in another period of American history in which racial tensions, polarization, and political change will play a huge role in shaping our future. Art is often one of the main mediums through which this change is documented. As cliché as it sounds, a look back at history can be the guiding hand that keeps us from making the same mistakes. Next time you’re in an art museum, try and look beyond what appears on the surface–there may be more there than you think. A deeper look at Paul Gauguin’s post-impressionistic oil painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from 1897 is a good place to start. The painting, now on display at the MFA in Boston, has many hidden racial and cultural connotations. Looking beyond an artwork’s figurative aspects could change not only the way you interpret that piece, but also situations you may encounter in everyday life.It may inspire empathy for a group of people you may not belong to and give you the tools to recognize injustice when it stares you in the face.          


Illustration by: Enne Goldstein