via NYTimes, Art in Review, 12/15/06 :
MIDDLE PASSAGE: WHITE SHIPS, BLACK CARGO
Drawings by Tom Feelings
Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts
80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn
Through Feb. 4
The Middle Passage is the name given to the dangerous sea leg of the slave trade, across the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Africa to North and South America and the Caribbean. It is also the subject of this astonishing suite of 52 black-and-white drawings by the African-American artist Tom Feelings, who died in 2003. The drawings took Mr. Feelings, a Brooklyn native, more than 20 years to complete. Composed through the unusual process of layering tissue paper over watercolor imagery, with pencil and tempera highlights, the drawings are smoky and ethereal. But the acrid content belies the softly beguiling presentation.
Mr. Feelings indulges in no lazy romanticism of Africa, depicting the origins of the slave trade in local tribal conflicts. Several drawings show African kings assembling and trading slaves with the Europeans for guns, molasses and rum.
The most affecting images illustrate the suffering and desperation of the captives on board the slave ships. There are countless images of them being force-fed, beaten and raped, of their bodies chained and pressed together, back to belly, in the putrid bowels of leaky hulks.
Thousands died of disease, starvation and torture; others took their own lives. But moments of humanity emerge, as when a European sailor tries to stop a slave from certain suicide by leaping overboard. Perhaps he is just trying to preserve his investment, though his fearful eyes suggest an uneasiness and conflict in the slave trader’s heart. BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO