The Wanderer

Yinka Shonibare's response to a slave ship disaster

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

Born in England in 1962 and raised in Nigeria, contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare currently lives and works in London, where he explores issues of race and class through a range of media that includes sculpture, painting, photography, and installation art. His works address a range of cultural and historical issues and in the process blur the boundaries of design, ethnography, and contemporary art.

This work called The Wanderer made in 2006/7 is Yinka Shonibare's interpretation of an horrific slave ship voyage. Although by 1820 slave trading in the US was punishable by death, in 1858 three pro-slavery 'Fire Eaters' converted a pleasure boat, The Wanderer, into a slave ship. In total 487 Africans were crammed into the hold and 80 people died on the horrific voyage from Africa to Jekyll Island, Georgia. (see this diagram of a slave ship showing how tightly packed slaves were crammed into ships). Those brought to trial were subsequently acquitted. It was not until after the American Civil War that slavery was technically abolished in 1865.

The 'wax cotton' sails in Shonibare’s model are illustrative of Africa. Shonibare has placed control of the ship in the hands of the enslaved people within it so that they are symbolically sailing under African colours. But the horror and pathos of the true story still remain.

Curriculum links:

Citizenship -Slavery
History - Global trade.
Art and Design - Contemporary art

Discussion ideas:

  • What do you think the role of a contemporary artist is?
  • How effective do you think art can be in getting across moral or difficult issues? Think about different media and their long term result.
  • Why do you think some people dismiss contemporary art?
  • What do you think the difference between modern art and contemporary art is? Can you suggest examples of both?
  • Why do you think Yinka Shonibare made a model of the ship rather than use other media such as paint?
  • Why do you think this artist used the sails to portray Africa? Think about the quality of waxed cotton compared to other materials he could have used.
  • Look at the work of other contemporary artists such Marc Quinn. Think about the different issues being explored in these different works. Look up the work of other artists like Keith Piper and Sonia Boyce (links below).
  • Look at this graphic novel to trigger discussions about the slave trade and its eventual outlawing

Yinka Shonibare talking about his artwork Wanderer

'The interesting thing about the title ‘Wanderer’ – what I like about it is that it can be read in two ways. On the one hand, wandering implies a kind of freedom, if you like, a kind of self-determination. It could be read as an emblem of the diaspora or Africa. In this work, I was placing control of the ship in the hands of the Africans within it. The wax cotton sails are symbolic of Africa and the people were sailing under African colours, so to speak. On the other hand, the horror and pathos of the actual story still remains. There is also a correlation between various cultures in the very fabric of the work, such as the sails and the vitrine. The work is a simultaneous representation of very different kinds of power.'

Poem written collaboratively by Bradford's Young Ambassadors in response to The Wanderer

Wanderer – Bringing the Jewels
Underling Darkness
Ahoy! Ahoy! Strip of light!
Free floating patterns
Silent Screams
Moving Shadows

The map below shows Jeykll Island in Georgia, USA where the original Wanderer landed in 1858. Zoom out to see where on the East coast of America the ship landed

Document icon Learning article provided by: Cartwright Hall Art Gallery | 
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