Frank Bowling: In the Glow of Light and Colour
When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the National Gallery of Canada to close its doors to the public due to provincial restrictions a second time, those who had been lucky enough to visit the building in the weeks prior to the 21 December closure would have noticed a new addition to one of the Gallery’s most iconic rooms.
Middle Passage by British artist Frank Bowling currently hangs in Room C214, a space that has long been home to Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire and Mark Rothko’s No. 16. Both of these works had caused a stir across Canada when they were purchased, at a cost deemed expensive by the public. By contrast, Middle Passage went on display quietly and without controversy, to create an interesting dialogue with its monumental counterparts. The subject matter found within the grand 3.2 x 2.8-metre canvas is an assertive display of the vibrant, complex and often chaotic nature of Black culture within a colonialist society.
Born in Bartica, Guyana, Bowling left his home country by ship to settle in the United Kingdom in 1953. His artistic career began at the Chelsea School of Art, before being accepted to Royal College of Art in 1959. Discouraged by his lack of success in the U.K., he moved to Manhattan in 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Today he divides his time between London and New York, with studios in both cities.
By the time he produced Middle Passage in 1970, Bowling had embraced abstract painting and an artistic technique that combined colour fields with silkscreened shapes and figures. This particular work catches the eye, not only for its large scale, but also because of its rich, warm and vibrant colour palette, reminiscent of the Guyanese flag. Striking yellows and reds dominate the canvas, but with closer focus, hints of green and pink appear throughout. As the eye scans the work, it inevitably lands upon representative shapes and figures where Bowling’s use of the silkscreen technique is apparent.
Near the centre, faint geographical outlines of Africa and the Americas are found. These are a staple of Bowling’s map paintings that became the framework for the artist's recent retrospective exhibition Mappa Mundi, organized by the Haus der Kunst in Munich. They are upright in some cases and rotated 90 degrees in others, which speaks to the disorientation experienced by those forcibly shipped from their home countries to unknown parts of the world. At top left, representations of Black men and boys stare back at the viewer, their expressions difficult to discern. The painting has a lasting effect on the eyes, immediately noticeable when looking away at the white walls around it. A vivid afterimage is formed not only on the retina, but also in the viewer’s mind, thus coaxing deeper introspection.
What better metaphor for the subject matter of Middle Passage? Its title is a reference to the triangular trade routes connecting Europe, Africa and the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Generations of slaves, ripped from their homelands, were shipped across the Atlantic.
The painting speaks to those who survived the trip and would be subjected to forced labour, starvation, physical and mental torture and murder at the hands of colonialists. And so nations would be built upon the backs of slaves in lands that were stolen from Indigenous peoples, while those in power enriched themselves. Entire societies were formed on a foundation that exploited Black and Indigenous lives and continues to do so today. Despite centuries of horrific struggles, stereotypes and racism, Black people in the Americas have contributed to popular culture in ways that are astounding and have refused to let their voices go unheard. When forced into labour, they sang in the fields, paving the way for blues music and jazz. When they needed to migrate north, they helped popularize soul food from coast to coast. When the countries they built were under threat, they fought wars to protect them. When their brothers and sisters are murdered by law enforcement, they flock to the streets and demand justice. Through hundreds of years faced with impossible odds, the Black community has been unwavering.
According to his website, Bowling "rejected the idea that ‘artists who happen to be black’ should be making overtly political or protest art and defended those engaged in abstraction”. While Middle Passage could be interpreted as political in today’s climate, it seems more likely that the artist’s main intent was to invite viewers to reflect upon a story that has largely been told from a colonial perspective. Black culture today has a dark and troubling history, yet it remains distinguishably rich and vibrant. Perhaps displaying the first work of art by a Black artist in Room C214 was overdue, but the National Gallery of Canada could not have selected a better painting for the occasion. Just as Frank Bowling’s Middle Passage has a lasting visual and emotional effect on the viewer, a close examination of Black history helps shed a different light on society.
Frank Bowling's Middle Passage is on view in Room C214 in the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.