For Those Who Chose the Sea

2022, China ink and fine tip marker drawings, video, and wooden structure.
Presented at the Ottawa Art Gallery (26.03–14.08.2022) and at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (7.10.2022-14.01.2023).
Private collection (works on paper only).

“From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the transatlantic slave trade was an enforced and horrific voyage for millions of human beings. African peoples were shackled in the lower decks of ships, and transported like cargo by British and European slavers to the Americas and West Indies. The trauma of these events has been passed down through the generations, and has since become rooted in the collective psyche of descendants of the African diaspora.

Montreal-based artist Stanley Wany engages with the legacy of slavery which permeates his identity. Primarily known as a graphic novelist, for this installation he traces connections between conditions aboard slave  ships and the existing societal stratification imposed on the living relatives of the African women and men who were taken. 

Wany’s multimedia installation combines  immersive video footage of the Atlantic Ocean with a powerful mixed-media work on paper, and a   sculpture mimicking the confining spaces in which human beings were stored below decks on slave ships. 

Projected large on one wall, the video footage of the Atlantic ocean was filmed in Fort Monroe, Hampton, Virginia. Formerly known as Point Comfort, it is noted as the first location where enslaved Africans set foot in English North America in 1619, before hereditary lifelong slavery was more formally established.

Wany’s interactive structure is built with the quoted specifications of the spatial conditions endured by African peoples aboard the Portuguese slaving ship Veloz. The dimensions are drawn from an eye-witness account recorded in 1829 by Irish abolitionist Reverend Robert Walsh, when he boarded the vessel bound for Brazil. Visitors are encouraged to crawl inside the structure. Squeezed into compartments, here they listen and hear the crashing waves and glimpse the rolling ocean through the board cracks, as though from below decks.

An accompanying three-panel mixed-media work on paper echoes the dislocation brought on by lost identities, histories and ancestors. Materially, their surface is scratched and marked. It is through this physical act of digging into the work to reveal its buried layers that Wany conceptually engages in an act of remembering.  

The first panel reveals historical renderings of the tumultuous voyage through a sea of waves. Here, Wany references the ship in J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (1840), created in response to the infamous Zong massacre of 1781, in which a British slaving ship’s crew threw 133 enslaved peoples overboard, and the owner then tried to collect an insurance payment for his loss. In Wany’s work, the figures cast into the sea, as seen in Turner’s original painting, are humanized: on the right, one figure looks back towards Africa and the past, while on the left, another looks in the direction of the ship and towards a future in the Americas. A central figure looks outward towards us with an uncanny stare and the moon consistently presides over it all.

The central panel reveals the liminal space of the mid-Atlantic – referencing the millions who went overboard, by force or by choice. The artist asks – “what would it take for somebody to do this?,” reflecting on it as “an act of defiance and courage that demonstrates their humanity.” A variety of African masks also appear, including one of the Luba people of the Congo and another of the Yoruba people of south western Nigeria. The chaos and confusion of the ocean, and indeed the mind, mingles with glimpses of clarity of what came before.

The third panel references contemporary life. Today, a disproportionate number of those in African-diasporic communities live in highrise housing projects, such as this first public housing project built in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York City. They are stacked in apartments one on top of the other, similar to the lower decks of slaving ships. In the foreground, we are engaged by the hard stare of a figure, who is flanked by one who looks backward to the past, and one who looks forwards to the future. The moon maps the consistency of time, and continuity of condition.

By showing the correlation between these spatial and hierarchical systems, Wany provokes and supports a diversity of emotional, intellectual and physical reflections about diasporic conditions, and the residual effects of violence and harm.” – Curated by Catherine Sinclair.