‘The sea has always been there’, says Ellen Gallagher (56), ‘I grew up with it.’ A conversation with the artist feels like a dive underwater: we swim past coral reefs and whale carcasses on the bottom of the sea, and also come across the wreckage of hundreds of years of transatlantic slave trade. In her studio in the port of Rotterdam, where you can look out over the water through high windows, she tells how the sea in general, and a myth about a Black Atlantis in particular, has inspired her for decades.
Gallagher’s work can be seen from today In the black fantastic in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. In this exhibition, which was already on view last summer at the Hayward Gallery in London, eleven artists from the African diaspora mix current themes such as racism and social exclusion with myth and fantasy. In the British press, the exhibition was awarded no less than three times five stars. “Spectacular from start to finish,” wrote The Guardiana reviewer of Evening Standard called it “unlikely that there will be another better exhibition this year.”
What is special about this exhibition is that the participating artists, mainly based in the USA and Great Britain, do not only refer to the daily reality of racism and the history of slavery that preceded it. They also create new worlds. The paintings of Gallagher, who grew up in the United States as the daughter of an Irish-American mother and an African-American father, are a good example of this. Her new world takes place on the seabed: on two large watercolors, she sketches a beautiful underwater world that is as dreamy as it is ominous.
Gallagher is world famous, but although she has lived alternately in New York and Rotterdam for more than twenty years, she is not yet known in the Netherlands. She has had several solo exhibitions in the US and Europe, and her work is in the collections of major museums such as Moma in New York, Tate in London and the Center Pompidou in Paris. In the Netherlands, her first solo exhibition is still waiting; it is planned for autumn 2023 at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. There is a Dutch museum with works by her in its collection: In 2020 the Fries Museum bought it Osedax on, a film installation inspired by the eponymous bristle worms that eat whale bones on the bottom of the sea.
The two softly colored paintings hanging in the Kunsthallen are part of Gallagher’s ongoing series Water ecstatic, which she started in 2001. In a mixture of watercolour, oil paint, ink and paper cut-outs on paper, abstract and recognizable forms flow into each other. What looks like little air bubbles clumping together is actually a reference to coral spawning, she says. “Sex life with corals is endlessly interesting and mysterious. They only do it once in a while, after a full moon.’ At the same time, the bubbles are just as much based on the bulging eyes – a reference to racist caricatures – that Gallagher filled entire canvases with at the start of his career.
When I ask her about the title of the paintings, The ecstatic draft of Piscesshe shows me a postcard with a reproduction of The miraculous catch of fish (1618-1619), an oil pastel drawing by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. In English the title reads: The miraculous move of fish. “Rubens drew several versions,” says Gallagher. “Others stay close to the original, with fishermen pulling up their nets after meeting Jesus and the fish all jump out.” On the postcard she shows, the fishermen seem to have dug up something completely different. A tentacle like a sea monster slithers out of the nets.
‘The composition of this drawing is almost exactly the same as Medusa’s fleetsays Gallagher. She refers to the famous painting by the Frenchman Théodore Géricault depicting the sinking off the coast of West Africa of the French ship Medusa from 1816. “And this is the painting that William Turner looked at when he … The slave ship the goal.’ 19th century Turner, a staunch abolitionist, based this painting (1840) on the British ship Zong. In 1781, almost 150 slaves were pushed off that ship on the open sea because there was not enough water on board.
This is how it goes in a conversation with Gallagher: We jump from the 16th to the 19th century, from Flanders to West Africa and from biblical stories to the history of slavery. As in her paintings, she makes connections as she talks, bridging centuries and continents and where fact and fiction flow into each other.
Gallagher spent his childhood in Providence, the capital of the state of Rhode Island on the east coast of the United States. As a university student, she supported herself for a summer harvesting fish on a commercial fishing boat. “I wanted to repeat that experience, but without the courage. And then, at the age of 20, she signed up to spend a semester on a sailing ship as part of an oceanographic expedition. Together with a group of students, she sailed on a sailboat to the Caribbean island of Martinique At night she studied sea snails under the microscope and drew them.
It was a “magical experience,” says Gallagher, one that taught her to find focus and concentration in the open sea, “the same way sailors do when they scrimshaw to make’. Scrimshaw is the English name for tiny drawings on whale and walrus teeth that whalers made during their long sea voyages in previous centuries. Its influence can be seen in her paintings, where she combines fluid, watery paint with fine, detailed drawings, which she partially cuts into thick watercolor paper.
Gallagher’s underwater world is loosely based on the myth of Drexciya, a Black Atlantis created by the 1990s Detroit techno band of the same name. According to the myth, this world is populated by the descendants of pregnant slave women who, in Gallagher’s words, “went overboard” during the crossing from West Africa to the Americas. The women died, but their children survived in the womb and developed gills to breathe underwater.
Drexciya is a myth of unimaginable grief and loss, based on gruesome historical facts. But also about freedom and potential, says Gallagher: ‘What touches me is the idea that a kind of rebirth takes place on the seabed. That life flows from the womb into the sea and begins again there.’
For the inhabitants of Drexciya, the end point is not present-day America, where the past of slavery is still palpable. Nor do they return to Africa. They find a new home. “And they find it in the ocean, a place that knows no national borders.” It is true In the black fantastic is about, says Gallagher: a free space that relies on historical facts but also disrupts predictable storylines and interpretations.
In the black fantasticKunsthal Rotterdam, until 9/4.