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Grub For Sharks: A Concession for the Negro Populace

March 2005

Kara Walker, Grub For Sharks: A Concession for the Negro Populace, 2004, Courtesy of the Artist and Brent Sikkema, Photograph Tate Liverpool 2004.

In 1840 J M W Turner painted Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Comingon (The Slave Ship). The subject matter concerned the ‘Zong’, a slave ship that had departed from Liverpool in the 1780s en route to Jamaica where, on arrival, the master of the ship had slaves – both dead and alive – thrown into the shark-infested seas. This nefarious practice was regularly employed by slave traders to claim insurance monies for slaves who had become so enfeebled by the journey they could not be sold on arrival. The issue was one of remuneration: if sick slaves died a ‘natural’ death, the ship’s owners received no compensation; if, however, slaves were thrown overboard in order to expedite the ship’s passage in the face of a possibly ruinous storm, the insurers would pay out. In sum, the loss of a few slaves, when compared with the loss of a ship, was infinitely more palatable to insurance brokers and slave traders alike. (more…)

The Spectacular Difference of Documenta XI

March 2003

Since its inception in 1955, Documenta has established itself as an institution that not only presents a survey of contemporary art historical issues but, more recently, the social and political milieu in which we live. Add to this the considerable amount of critical attention focused on who is chosen to curate Documenta, and the entire project would appear to be becoming more of a multidisciplinary inquiry into the ethics of curation and the institutionalising effect of exhibitions per se. In opting to not only investigate the structures and conditions of present-day artistic production but also interrogate its institutional status, Documenta XI appeared to be indicative of this trend. As the first major exhibition of the twenty-first century, moreover, this interrogative stance is hardly surprising – indeed, given the wider developments in museological, curatorial and institutional conventions, it would seem to be obligatory. (more…)