We Might Not Be Surprised: Visualising Slavery and the Slave Ship in the Works of Charles Campbell and Mary Evans 

... Consider, for example, one of Horace Ové’s great late 1960s photographs, showing Stokely Carmichael addressing an audience at London’s Roundhouse. Behind him, listening attentively, sit several Black men, chief amongst them perhaps, the conflicted figure of Michael X, a very British version of the iconic Malcolm X, who had been gunned down in New York several years earlier. Indeed, two large portraits of Malcolm X adorned the makeshift display and ‘Black Power’ signage that formed a backdrop to the stage. Similar signage and imagery was fastened to the front of the table being used by the speakers as a makeshift lectern, thereby giving the audience an unrestricted view of not only a sizeable ‘Black Power’ handwritten sign, but also, to its left, in the middle of the front of the table, a large reproduction of the infamous plan of the slave ship, the Brookes of Liverpool. In this regard, this late 18th century image was very much at home amongst the iconography of the late 1960s Black Power movement. The slave ship symbolised not only grave and tumultuous historical abuses and violence, but simultaneously symbolised ongoing abuses and violence daily heaped on Black peoples of the Americas, southern Africa, and right there in London, England, as well as other parts of the country. In presenting the plan of the slave ship in such a conspicuous manner, one suspects that those on the platform, and the conference session organisers, were keen to present the slave ship as being emblematic, and symptomatic, of that thing in the white psyche that allowed such moral degradation, and that such a dangerous psychological and pathological deformity was manifest and amply reflected in Black people’s present-day troubles. For good measure, Carmichael’s backdrop was embellished with the frequently reproduced poster announcing the forthcoming public auction, on Monday 18 May 1829, of three slaves, referred to as Hannibal, William, and Nancy.  The messages are clear: this is what they did to us as Black people; and they daily continue to heap further abuses on us. It’s not difficult to imagine this being the upshot of Carmichael’s delivery.

Whilst we have perhaps grown accustomed to such uses of slavery-related imagery, it has fallen to recent generations of artists the task of excavating the plan of the slave ship for other readings and meanings. This paper concerns itself with the work of two such artists – Jamaican painter Charles Campbell and British practitioner, Mary Evans. Both of these artists reflect something of the trademark experiences embedded in the ways in which the African Diaspora now manifests itself. Campbell was born in Jamaica and has spent significant periods of his life in Canada, having completed a period of postgraduate art education in Europe – in his instance, at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  Evans was born in Nigeria in the early 1960s, subsequently growing up and coming of age in the United Kingdom. Her art school education included a period of study at The Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Campbell recently returned to Jamaica, to take up a position as Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, in the country’s capital, Kingston, whilst Evans continues to live and work in London. These fleeting biographical references indicate the fascinating extent and ease to which artists, indeed, people, such as Campbell and Evans navigate the globe, availing themselves of opportunities in different environments and becoming in the process, living embodiments of an ever-mutating African Diaspora. It is perhaps this movement, these multiple and simultaneous identities, that lead artists such as Campbell and Evans to produce such fascinating work that, like its makers, reflects a profound and engaging fluidity...

The above extracts from an illustrated text by Eddie Chambers “We Might Not Be Surprised: Visualising Slavery and the Slave Ship in the Works of Charles Campbell and Mary Evans”, a book chapter in Visualising Slavery: Art Across the African Diaspora, edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier and Hannah Durkin, published 2016