Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sadness on Canvas

"I think personally our black citizens should get over [slavery]… by golly we're living in 2007," claimed Virginia Republican Delegate Frank Hargrove, debunking the very essence of artwork like “The Dutchman” by Moyo Okediji, painted in 1995 though still focusing on the lasting effects of slavery on today’s African Americans. When we usually see a painting, we first notice the medium, the space, the color choice, and the contrast within the painting and not the real meanings. These elements not only dictate our sensual perceptions but also our minds about what the artist tried to accomplish by using certain techniques. It should be no different when we view “The Dutchman.” This image not only evokes certain emotions about its historical content, namely the slave trade, but also challenges our senses with the line curvature and the coloring, not to mention its sheer size. Even without knowing what the objects in the painting represent, one can still decipher a deeper social meaning, based solely on its formal qualities, that screams of the injustices done to in the African slave trade that still endure today.

The ground medium, canvas, sends a definitive statement about the artwork. Canvas is not just use for painting, but also serves as the sails of some ships. This versatile material forces us to examine why the artist chose canvas over other mediums like wood or glass. The canvas represents the slave trade itself, binding the characters to the medium that depicts many scenes but just one instance of the suffering of the African Slave Trade. The canvas confines the subjects as the ships confined their human cargo. Canvas is a representative material of slavery because if it weren’t for canvas, the ships would not have been able to sail and this artwork would not have been painted. By choosing canvas as the medium to paint on, Okediji not only recognizes the significance canvas to the slave trade but also recognizes the finality of the moment he painted and how canvas truly locks the moment in time.

The paint media is also noteworthy. Okediji uses acrylic, which reflects the light. The acrylic paint could be symbolic of the shining light that the Americans saw slavery as. When looking directly at the painting, it appears glossy and somewhat fantastic because it is so shiny. Yet the glossy reflection gives the illusion of a happy scene, just as those Americans who owned slaves put on an air of contentment, while their slaves were miserable in their laborious lives. The texture is indicative of the false perceptions that surrounded the African slave trade. Everyone believed it was good, such as a glossy image might appear, but if one really looks at it, it is a horrible depiction of the plight of a people kidnapped and imprisoned in a foreign country. Looking at the texture alone, a somewhat cheerful scene appears. Once the real content of the painting is inspected, a despicable image emerges and dispels all illusory effects of the acrylic gleam.

Space, as a formal quality of “The Dutchman,” epitomizes the situation that the slaves dealt with on their voyage away from their home. All of the different scenes in the painting are combined into just one image, just as all the slaves packed into one ship like cargo. Each individual scene becomes indistinguishable as the image as a whole forms, so the viewer has to look hard to decipher one story from another. Okediji places a whole story inside of one painting and lets the space in between the scenes speak volumes about the compact trip that slaves endured. Though a ship ride from Africa to the Americas would have taken a couple of weeks or more, the trip for the Africans became one blur of hysterics that begins and ends brutally and quickly, leaving them dazed, just as the viewers of this painting may be if they take the painting as a whole instead of various scenes. Space remains pivotal in this painting simply because it emphasizes the confined living area the slaves encountered in each individual scene in the painting. If Okediji had chosen to paint just one particular scene from the ones he chose, the effect would not have been the same because there would have been too much space and the viewer would not get a complete idea of the restrictions forced on slaves while they were in transit.

The color choice, as noted in the online description of the painting, influences the interpretation and the social message of Okediji’s work. The colors, bright and vibrant, serve to explain the vivacity of life the slaves had before they left their native land. For a painting that uses very intricate shapes and designs, there are a limited number of colors. The limited color scheme, like the spacing, serves as a metaphor for the restrictions placed on Africans and later African Americans. Okediji sends a social commentary that can only be achieved through the intense yet limited colors he chose; the commentary being that the Africans maintained a resilient, vivid culture that the slave traders tried to inhibit. Okediji also used many shades of blue, indicative of the Atlantic and “the pain at the root of African American blues music.” The blue coloring brings about a sense of calm in most artwork, yet the color here represents the despair that slaves felt as they traversed the ocean. The water presented a constant threat to the slaves because they could drown or be thrown over. Now the color blue can be representative of the blues music genre that captures the intense pain still suffered by African Americans because of the blue ocean that took their ancestors from their rightful home. The use of the blue complements Okediji’s motivation behind this piece of artwork in that it suggests the plight of the Africans, not only in the past but also in the present.

Contrast plays an important role in this artwork. Looking at it from the left to the right, a story unfolds. The contrasting imagery employs several “elements of design to hold the viewer's attention and to guide the viewer's eye through the artwork.” The viewer looks at the contrast and is forced to follow the painting from the beginning of the slaves’ voyage to their sale. The contrasting imagery still maintains a cohesiveness that allows the painting to flow even though the shapes and subjects vary. Not a single scene pops out from the others, and yet they remain dissimilar because they have different subjects, be it drowning slaves or a Dutchman with his face turned. This cohesiveness in the face of the diverse scenes indicates the strength of the African people despite their toils. Okediji, with this contrast, states that his people will remain united though divided in different stages of life; in this case, each group of Africans undergoes a different stage of the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas. No matter what happens to individual, contrasting Africans or African Americans, the spirit lives on.

Some may argue that Okediji’s painting simply manifests a shameful period of time from the perspective of a modern African American man and that it places too much blame on the Dutchman. Others may state that the painting overdoes the sorrow of the Africans who encountered the slave trade and that since slavery is over, no one should hold it against white people, namely the Dutch. Still others make some interesting assertions about slavery and how it never even existed; however reliable these sources seem is up for interpretation. With people like Delegate Hargrove, it is hard to say that everyone believes African Americans still have a right to the effects still felt from slavery. These arguments, though valid to some extent, do not fully encapsulate the effect that slavery had on Africans as a formerly culturally isolated group. Okediji, as an African American artist, still encountered prejudice and other feelings that linger from slavery and he wanted to make a statement about his experience as an African and that the effects from slavery surpass time.

Okediji’s painting incorporates many formal qualities that speak volumes about the history of his ancestors. He, like many modern African Americans, still feel the plight of their history and can never fully overcome the strife inflicted upon them by the Dutch and the Americans. This painting represents his feelings about the persistence of slavery-related notions and the emotions that effect people of today.

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