Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1278-1281
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Visual Representations of Slavery 1780-1865
Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery 1780-1865. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
The front cover reproduction of J.M.W. Turner's monumental oil painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhoon Coming On is a gesture of intent by Marcus Wood and his publisher. The study itself aims for a similar canonicity in academia to that which the painting has achieved in the Fine Art tradition. It follows the groundbreaking work of Hugh Honour and Albert Boime, telescopes the period covered and expands into book illustration to show the importance of the visual throughout the multiple depictions of the slave experience. Especially novel is Wood's interest in the panoply of images associated with slavery in popular culture. Wood takes them seriously and submits them to extensive and usually erudite discussion aiming to counteract an academic tradition wherein "the imagery of slavery has not been taken as seriously as it should have been" (6). The breadth of the discussion and its intensity, together with the hundreds of famous and obscure images collected in the text make this a wonderful resource for the classroom and it should be a recommended text on any course on the culture of the Atlantic slave trade.
Especially engaging are the extended and wonderfully contextualized discussions of Turner's 1840 painting and the 1789 Description of a Slave Ship. The latter's progress to a defining image of the anti-slave trade movement in Europe and to a lesser extent in America is plotted with great acuity. Wood describes how the "conjunction of technical engraving with the depiction of a mass of black human flesh is a superb semiotic shock tactic" (27). He also describes how the image transcends its age becoming symbolic of the trade even into the late twentieth century where it is used [End Page 1278] on book covers (both literary and academic) and even on a Bob Marley album cover (Survival 1979). Wood concludes "that, for better or worse, this image is as close as the abolition movement in Britain got to the creation of a final monument to the middle passage" (36).
Disappointingly, Wood only talks in a footnote about diasporic African responses to the Description, failing to mention at all the African-American Tom Feelings' wonderfully wrought reimagination of the Brooks imprinted on the body of a victim of slavery in his illustrated book The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargoes (1995). Wood concludes that, "Twentieth-century adaptations suggest that Western Society's memory of the middle passage may still be dominated by eighteenth century English abolitionist models for the memorial reconstruction of the slave trade" (19). This might be true of the majority culture, but such a sweeping generalisation elides radicalised adaptions such as that by Feelings and his compatriot Howarda Pindell whose Slave Narratives: Memorial (1993) with its tight-packed, crouched bodies resembling chains talks back to the Description. Contemporary Black British art is also absent here as he eschews letting the Empire speak back through such figures as Keith Piper and Lubaina Himid. The latter's Memorial to Zong (1991) engages directly with Turner's epic painting and more indirectly with the Description. She, and Piper, take the detritus of the imagery of slavery and use it to comment acerbically on historical abuses and contemporary racism making sure that "the memory of the trade" does not "become primarily the meaning of its glorious Abolition" (8) as the majority culture after the 1820's seemed intent to make it. Obviously Wood's principal time frame is 1789-1865; however, if he stretches it to look at contemporary book and record sleeves surely he could find a few pages to talk about a contemporary field of art which is too little discussed in the academy as it is.
The extended discussion of Turner's painting is an exemplary piece of historical and fine art criticism that shows an interdisciplinarity and a keen eye for detail that is...