Vicissitudes: Not a Sculptural Homage to Victims of the Middle Passage – or is it?
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From the website www.underwatersculpture.com of Jason DeCaire Taylor
Jason DeCaire Taylor, a British sculptor, creates beautiful and haunting life-size sculptures underwater in the oceans. These evolve to become reefs, many in places where the original reefs have suffered environmental degradation. His exhibits can be seen either by diving or glass-bottom boats, all over the world.
“Vicissitudes” is a large circle of figures
shackled together and holding hands, off the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean. It remembers the captive Africans who died on slave ships during the Middle Passage, the crossing from Africa to the Americas. About a third of captives died from the horrible conditions on board. Their bodies were thrown into the Atlantic. Others, particularly women with children, who were often allowed to move about unshackled on deck, threw themselves over. Many believed in reincarnation and hoped to escape slavery and be reborn to a life of freedom.
May 30, 2012
The paragraphs above, posted here on 5/23/12, are erroneous. They perpetuate a myth circulating around the web. We apologize to our visitors and to the artist for our error – and thank the visitors who left comments on the exhibit bringing this to our attention.
Please go to the Vicissitudes exhibit and read the artist’s statement describing this work.
October 18, 2020
[Curator’s Note, 10/18/20: The original Vicissitudes website cited above no longer exhibits this sculpture exclusively, nor does it present the artist’s original statement about this sculpture. Instead, the site features beautiful photos of Jason deCaire Taylor’s many works and an explanation of the purposes of all his underwater pieces as an environmental conservation method.
The evolution of the sculptor’s thought about Vissisitudes, based on the meanings ascribed to it by the public, is a lesson in both historiography and the interpretation of public artworks. (See the many interpretive comments from this museum’s visitors, below.)
An excellent article in the Black Atlantic explains the debate. It begins:
“Jason de Caires Taylor’s piece “Vicissitudes” is not a work about the Middle Passage. Except, of course, that it is. Before examining the work itself, one needs to consider the context.
The Black Atlantic article quotes Taylor’s original description of Vissisitudes:
Vicissitudes depicts a circle of figures, all linked through holding hands. These are life-size casts taken from a group of children of diverse ethnic background. Circular in structure … the work both withstands strong currents and replicates one of the primary geometric shapes, evoking ideas of unity and continuum. … The sculpture proposes growth, chance, and natural transformation. It shows how time and environment impact on and shape the physical body. Children by nature are adaptive to their surroundings. Their use within the work highlights the importance of creating a sustainable and well-managed environment, a space for future generations.
However, as the public began to interpret his work as a commemoration of the Middle Passage, Taylor said quote
It was never my intention to have any connection to the Middle passage…. Although it was not my intention from the outset I am very encouraged how it has resonated differently within various communities and feel it is working as an art piece by questioning our identity, history and stimulating debate.
Read the full Black Atlantic article here: Davide Carozza, “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on October 18, 2020).
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