Vicissitudes: Not a Sculptural Homage to Victims of the Middle Passage – or is it?

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.

Vicissitudes by Jason deCaire Taylor

Vicissitudes by Jason deCaire Taylor

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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51 Comments

  1. Edwidge on May 30, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    “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.”

    This explanation of this artwork certainly makes it more powerful and impressive than it already is … but it appears to be a FORGED one because I’ve not been able to find anything on the artist’s site or about his pieces that corroborates this meaning.

    According to THE ARTIST:
    “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.”

    As I said, if the piece really represented what you claim it does, that would have been very touching for me (a Haitian American) and other African peoples, but “hijacking” the meaning/forging this association–especially when it’s all too easy to discover what the piece is really about–really makes you and others who do the same look desperate and ignorant. Not cool.

    • dr_fran on May 30, 2012 at 11:26 PM

      Edwidge, Chelsea, and Alswords – Thank you so much for correcting this for us. My bad: this info came from a trusted source; I was pressed for time, so, though I usually go to the source for our info, I accepted it at face value. I should have been more careful – and will be in future. I will leave this exhibit up for a couple more days, hoping that you will see this reply. Then I will remove it. Thanks for your help.

  2. Chelsea on May 30, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    I agree with Edwidge 100%. I saw this photo on someone’s tumblr account, but before I shared the photo myself I had to do a little research. The websites that did claim this as the meaning were not credible blog post sites, tumblr pages, and instagram photos. The true meaning that you can find on his website, which is also stated above, needs to be spread. People are uneducated enough, let’s not add to the ignorance by spreading these claims.

  3. Alswords on May 30, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    Thank you Edwidge, I totally agree with you. I am tired of “my people” putting this sculpture on the internet claiming it represents slaves enduring the middle passage! I try to correct this every time it pops up on Facebook.

  4. Dantri on May 31, 2012 at 4:38 AM

    After seeing a post on Facebook about the sculpture, I was moved as well, but I love researching the meanings of things for myself and was disappointed that someone has applied their own, especially when the artist’s website clearly explains a different motive for his artwork. I wish I could find the post from earlier today so that I could correct it, but will create a post of my own instead. Happy to know I was not alone.

  5. missy on June 1, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    Anyone who know the history on slavery will instantly take a look at this artwork and automatically jump to the conclusion that it represents the sick slaves that were thrown off of the ship during the crossing from Africa to America. I think this was his initial interpretation.

  6. Kathy on June 3, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    Then this is DUMB Art if not an Homage to murdered African slaves dutingthe middle passage… “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.”
    If not does the artist attempts to blur lines.. or revisionist history..

  7. Efefiong Umo on June 9, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    I believe what it is, this art depicts Black Africans thrown hand to hand into the ocean or river, what ever the artist says later on, doesnt actually really make sense , rather it will be perfect for what it is seen as.

  8. MsDiva on June 10, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    I definitely believe that this art was created for the middle passage deaths. There is NO other way to explain the art. He must of changed the meaning behind it AFTER the fact. Either way it tells a beautiful story and gives off a symbolic meaning.

  9. Wesley Bryant on June 11, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    Can we get a current definitive statement from the artist?

  10. Richard Coubry on June 22, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor, an English sculptor specialising in the creation of contemporary underwater sculptures which over time develop into artificial coral reefs

    The sculpture pictured is called Vicissitudes. It 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.

    The sculpture is installed in 4.5 meters of water at the Moliniere Bay Sculpture Garden in Grenada.

    Many locals linked the sculptural figures to slavery, because the local history involved slavery. Taylor was surprised by this since he certainly did not have that issue in mind in the creation of the work. “I was just making sculptures of different kids holding hands,” he said.

    https://www.underwatersculpture.com/pages/artist/about-3.htm

    https://www.xray-mag.com/pdfs/articles/Portfolio_JasonTaylor_18.pdf

  11. Richard Coubry on June 22, 2012 at 7:07 PM

    The UK artist was based in Grenada at the time so used local children for the sculpture cast. Here’s a video where the artist talks about what the children represent:
    https://bit.ly/Mf2mnm

    Here’s a video showing the installation, and an interview where he talks about how he made the installation.
    https://bit.ly/MPrE8Q

    • Michelle J Dyett-Welcome on December 3, 2020 at 11:25 AM

      Videos no longer available.

  12. Heneith Samuel on July 5, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    So what is wrong with dedicating this brilliant piece of work to the many brilliant minds, and their descendents, who lost their lives in the middle passage? Had something this brilliant been constructed to reflect the horrors of the holocast, the Jews would have jumped on the opportunity. What is wrong with our people?

    Isn’t it about time that someone immortalizes probably the most hideous attrocity ever committed selectively against man in the history of humankind?

    My thanks to the artiste!

    However, irrespective of all the denials and setting the record straight, this to me this is a fitting tribute to our relatives who perished at the hands of the ancestors of the same people who find our waters so pristine but yet still choose to oppress us.

    For once, let us be the exploiters.

  13. C. C. Evans on July 20, 2012 at 8:22 PM

    I absolutely believe that the artist had the slaves in mind when he created the piece. Before prejudging, I took the time to view some of his other works done on the Ocean floor and while each had an ecological objective, their mental creation is only one the artist can verify. However, much like the Trevon Martin case, we as African Americans know exactly what the bottom line is. Denial is a very strong coping skill for Caucasians when the truth is too ugly to absorb.

  14. carolyn on August 8, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Interesting debate. However, for me what a piece of art means is what it means to me.

  15. Walter on August 20, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    I have to agree with Carolyn. If art is only to be interpreted from the point of view of the artist, how then can their audience appreciate, interpret, and in the end, relate to it. If we can’t make art relevant to our own experiences how then are we to appreciate it. It’s sad when concepts such as “highjacking,” “forging,” are used by those who sanctimoniously perceived themselves to be the talented and enlightened ones of their race when in actuality they are simply heretics. When you force people to have the same opinion, the same reading, a single interpretation, even if its the artist’s interpretation, its called totalitarianism, fascism. Hello!!!

  16. Michael-Don Smith on August 24, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    @Heneith Samuel I would humbly suggest you be careful with your logic, if the justification for becoming exploiters is that our ancestors or ourselves were/are victims of exploitations are we then justified to become rapists and murderers? and @Efefiong Umo, @MsDiva, @missy, @Heneith Samuel, @C. C. Evans, @carolyn, @Walter, I am sure you do not mean your comments to be arrogant in general, insensitive to the artist in particular or to fail to offer the courtesy and respect to the living you seek to champion for the departed.
    However you all speak/write from a point of view of intelligence, moral standards or beliefs to which your words do not conform.
    It is a powerful piece of work with an infinity of meanings, let us enjoy the work and praise the artist and the art.
    Thanks Jason we are blessed by your gifts.

  17. MikkiG on October 17, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    I just received this pic in an email and previous comments are correct, the concept of it being slaves tossed overboard made it more interesting. I’m so glad that I am now in the habit of checking these so-called before I forward them. In this day and age, where people can pretty much perpetuate any falsehood they like, while on the internet, I am truly in the habit of checking my facts. Thanks for the truth, it’s much appreciated and I still love the underwater sculpture as well as all of the others on his website.

  18. JamesO on November 11, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    I had this link first forwarded to me via email on 7/10/12. Im utterly SHOCKED. I visited the site today only to realize it has been CHANGED from the original content! The original art did depict sculptors of slaves at the bottom of the ocean complete with chains and shackles. Some photos had women carrying children, and in one photo you could even see a ship floating at the waters surface, they took the shot at a bottom-top angle. It was very graphic, shocking and captivating all in one. Im sad to say they PULLED the original exhibit depicting the African holocaust. What you see now is NOT what was originally there. I was compelled to write something.. sad they felt they had to pull it. It was an amazing work of art for those who got a chance to see it.

    • dr_fran on November 13, 2012 at 12:01 PM

      James, Can you give us the URL of the site you visited and saw the shackled slaves at the bottom of the ocean?

  19. Net S. on February 8, 2013 at 6:51 AM

    Its ART, people. Its not meant to be logical in everyone’s mind. That’s what art is all about. Everyone see things differently and I love it. Those were my ancestors that were slaves and I see what the art was trying to share.

  20. Melody Pekarek on February 11, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    @JamesO – that work you are referring to, also by the same artist, is called “La Evolucion Silenciosa”, or the Evolution of Silence. It does depict pregnant women, people in shackles, and in one picture there is a ship floating above. The boat in that photo is a real one, though, holding scuba divers come to see the exhibit. That artwork was not changed to produce this one, it is an entirely different piece.
    I also agree with the others who have stated that art’s meaning is in the eyes of the beholder. Typically, great works of art are not accompanied by a detailed description, but rather it is up to the viewer to interpret and draw from it whatever emotional response is triggered based on that person’s perspective. We should not be judging each other, but rather sharing our mutual – yet very different – experience.

  21. Nia on February 23, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    For me art is just that… it is art and it is up to the person viewing it to perceive in a way it can relate to his or her life. The location and the actual way the statues look puts me in the mind frame of slavery and what they had to endure and how they were forced to jump or thrown off slave ships. For someone else, it may mean something else.

  22. Kenneth on February 28, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    I am glad that you posted the correct information, I am also TIRED of PEOPLE posting incorrect information on FACEBOOK and other social network sites, thanks!

  23. darkelf on February 28, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    I do agree that art is very subjective and a great work of art with make us examiner own emotions, experiences and beliefs.

    However it is very to say, ” I think of all the “Slaves that were killed during the Slave Trade when I see this art.” then to say, “This work was created to honor the slaves that were thrown off of ships during the slave trade.”

    The artist has a right to say it was made to represent one thing and the viewer have the right to disagree and think it was something else. However we don’t have the right to lie about how and why it was created. I was impressed that someone did honor these “lost people” with a created memorial. It was disheartening to find out it was created for an entirely different reason.

  24. Gabrielle Smith on March 4, 2013 at 6:55 AM

    Hi,

    You recently commented on the article we posted about this image.

    It was not our intention to circulate false information so after much discussion surrounding what the meaning was we decided to contact the sculptor.

    I felt this was important as the image has come to hold meaning for many people of African descent (including myself whose parents are from Grenada, where the sculptures are located).

    This was his reply:

    “It was never my intention to have any connection to the Middle passage, below is the original text. 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.”

    – Jason de Caires Taylor

    Although I do find it interesting that these particular sculptures were allowed to be placed on the island of Grenada I also have to respect the artists intention and commend the fact that now that he’s aware of what many take the sculptures to mean that he is now leaving the intention open to discussion.

  25. Myth Bustin': Grenada underwater sculpture is NOT a tribute to Middle Passage | Affrodite on March 5, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    […] America’s Black Holocaust Museum- Vicissitudes: NOT sculptural homage to victims of the Middle Passage […]

  26. vav on April 23, 2013 at 8:24 AM

    i don’t care what the intent of the artist was. i interpret it the way I see it. to the artist, it may have meant another thing, but to me, it represents our ancestors who were denied their right for freedom, – who died on their way to the western hemisphere. i will never forget this. nonetheless, this sculpture is awesome

    • Michelle J Dyett-Welcome on December 3, 2020 at 11:26 AM

      Agreed!

  27. Monica L. Satchell on July 20, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    Art is meant to be interpreted by different people, what it means to one it totally means different to another, that is the aesthetics of Art and beauty, i believe if he had the homage to the children lost i the middle passage it would have given it a stronger meaning to those that respect the lives lost from all diverse background…we are soully discounted and erased as these children were during that time and now. To me this will always be as what i see it as a Middle Passage Homage because Art evokes emotion and when i saw this before the title it did just that…we can speak openly of the conditions and genocides of others..but this is always kept as a dirty secret…when the genocide of Black people fare predates any and every…not comparing but the atrocities of The Panned Africans, to date, needs to be at least, if not acknowledge maybe a tip of the hat gesture.

  28. Darryl Van Horne on July 30, 2013 at 10:02 PM

    FYI…..They weren’t slaves until they arrived in North America.

    • Michelle J Dyett-Welcome on December 3, 2020 at 11:28 AM

      Human trafficking. Kidnapping. Crimes against humanity!

  29. pablozyx on August 2, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    I luv dis art wrk. In my life, I hav tried studin art in skull as my course bt am into computer sciece, I jst wish I can do art.

  30. The Professor on August 8, 2013 at 12:42 PM

    If these sculptures moves you or him so much, then why not sculpt Jews in Ovens??? I think you know why the artist won\’t do that, and its because the Jewish community will not allow their past to be exploited in any way, so to you @Heneith Samuel relax with your fascination…

  31. Rochelle Ingram on August 11, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    Art is Art and Art is ALWAYS up for interpretation. What EVER it means to you is FOR you.

    I looked at the peace (piece) closely and I only see to types of molds. One male and one female. Also, look a bit more and you will see that the male mold has very distinct features. The female mold wears a culturally identifiable braided bun.

    Now, my take is that he may have made it for the African Holocaust BUT was told that won’t sell. Not to do it. So he gave another explanation … similar to the Statue of Liberty which we know the origins.

    In the end interpretation. If African American’s can change the meaning of the word N**** why can’t African American’s redefine a piece of art?

  32. JaRinda on August 11, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    this is like one of those games where someone starts with a secret and as the words are passed around the circle the story is changed to reflect the lips it passes through as it travels. what exactly would this sculpture mean to everyone if it were displaced out of the water, on dry land, a circle of children of different backgrounds bound together standing in unity in a circle. I think people would have a completely different message about it. as it stands, this beautiful work of art will stand and become a place where life will form-hopefully reef will regrow and heal, bringing some much needed ecosystem healing with it. Why do we have to always lose perspective so easily when perhaps we could just take a queue from this…join hands, stand together, stand strong, and maybe linked together can heal damage that has taken decades if not centuries to create…

  33. susan on August 27, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t the artist’s intent….

  34. jamar joyner on October 25, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    I thought it had actual meaning.But the artist meaning is crap.

    • Michelle J Dyett-Welcome on December 3, 2020 at 11:31 AM

      How true! Maybe that is why the videos have been scrubbed. He knows it too. He took our story/history and changed it he was not brave enough to memorialize our experience. He had to whitewash or play it down. Time for us to do our own. We have talented artists and we know the pains and desperation that they had to feel. He just scratched the surface. Our artists can take it deeper for it is in our bones.

  35. Christian M. Walker on December 18, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    HENEITH SAMUEL… Is that what you want? To be in the position to EXPLOIT something/someone? It sounds as though you’re disappointed with your own people, no? Why is that? Because they’ve never conquered other countries, and reaped the rewards of enslaving its people and raping its women? Or is it because, besides South African countries, people in Africa still live like underdeveloped cavemen? They haven’t contributed to the outside world in a significant manner? There hasn’t been anyone that has invented anything that has changed the world, in a positive way, that would establish Africa’s people as better than third-world? Well, I can see why you would be disappointed in your people. Ashamed, actually! They claim to be the “Original Man”, yet they live as if their brains haven’t evolved with the rest of the world. That being said, it’s the exact reason that African descendants shouldn’t try to make their way state-side, and attempt to run a democratic government. It’s not designed for them. Not at all. When this system was established, long before Africans could even understand the English language, Africans were not even considered as being people! Only a fraction of a person. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution… None of them were written, with the black man in mind. Not my opinion, just a basic, historical fact. So, yeah, is there really any wonder that you haven’t been in the position to be the “Exploiters”? Think about that, and what it really means, and why black people fail at trying to participate in our system of government.

  36. Ed Waters on January 27, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    Change your perspective…change your life. The algae & coral that grow on the cement sculptures represent the adaptability of children, no matter the environnent. And they need to remove the word shackles. They are holding hands. Btw. This is 1 of several & done to promote tourism…Not wallow in the 1800’s. They had a much more recent confict to recover from.

  37. Total Eclipse on January 30, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    A lot of people are misinformed. Specific sculptures have specific meanings. The one with the people in chains was indeed what they were talking about. The one with the multicultural people was a completely different sculpture. There are several sculptures all over the world and they all were made for the same purpose. They just happen to be art.

  38. Charlton McCollum on April 9, 2014 at 12:44 AM

    Too late. It is now an african american slave memorial in the minds of many,,,,,kinda like hip hop you know,,,,,changing the meanings of words and stuff,,,

  39. Donni James on May 23, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    WELL …..I hope the artist was pulling a fast one on whoever commissioned the sculptor. Because it had wonderful deep meaning when thought to be a dedication to the tens of millions of kidnapped human beings that died in the middle passage.A story so traditionally glossed over its nauseating. Reading the comments (as per american usual) is just as nauseating with all the pseudo intellectual responses that are trying to explain to black people whats more important about the coral reef, or how they shouldnt look at the sculpture and see what they see, or how somehow the moment they were captured they were still free and not slaves until they got to american shores. ….really? all basically the ”conspiracy of silence please stop mentioning slavery black person” talk instead of saying honestly the verbal definition of the artist doesnt erase the actual visual and location regardless of what ANYONE SAYS. As the people who shiver at the mere mention of true black holocaust history thats NOT about them as heroes perhaps just maybe its not that its meaning was hijacked, maybe its that its meaning is clear to those whos thinking isnt retarded.

  40. Tomeko Malone on January 15, 2015 at 8:03 PM

    Bless our Ancestors and may your soul and spirit live forever come help us in our time we need you and love you. Amen

  41. Elecia Holland on July 8, 2015 at 9:16 AM

    Hate to burst your bubble but the sculpture IS a tribute to Africa Slaves.

  42. Bobbie Bryant-Welch on January 6, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    It is sad to me that this traumatic passage from freedom to slavery is “glossed” over, and a race of people are urged to move on without the whole story ever being told. I don’t know what emotions or facts that the artist meant to evoke, but clearly he inspired a conversation about the loss of these lives and the effect of that loss on future generations. Thank you for that

  43. Rosannette Rivera on October 13, 2020 at 10:19 AM

    Hi! Lovely to read comments from 2012!
    Hope you guys are enduring this pandemic well.

    So I teach high school art history and when I incorporated this piece into my class, unfortunately at the time they all spoke of the Middle Passage – and I never bothered to look it up again – so now here we are, and I’m sitting here feeling AWFUL that I perpetuated wrong information for years. However – I can fix it! lol At least with this new crew. Thanks for posting the correction and for commenters who reached out to clarify. Definitely refreshing all my presentations.

    • dr_fran on October 18, 2020 at 10:54 AM

      Dear Ms. Rivera, Thank you for incorporating this artwork in your class, then reading our piece about it not representing the Middle Passage. You and I both responded to the comments and reports that the artist’s stated purpose was not an artwork about those terrible journeys. However, I don’t think you should feel awful. I rechecked today and found that the artist now acknowledges and accepts this interpretation of this piece of his public art. I think we should too, so I made a curator’s note, changed the name of the exhibit about Vicissitudes in our virtual museum to reflect this question, and cited an excellent Black Atlantic article about it. I hope you’ll take another look at what I did, read the cited article, and rethink this for your high school art history class. I think it’s a great example of how the public and academia make meaning of both art and history as time, knowledge and contexts change.

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