The current Exhibition at Tate Liverpool, “Dark Waters”, consists of works by Joseph Mallory William Turner and Lamin Fofana. It highlights Turner’s atmospheric style that “often showed the extreme danger of the waters”.
The Exhibition brings together the works of Turner and an “immersive sound environment from artist and musician Lamin Fofana (born 1982). Fofana looks towards the sea, particularly the Atlantic Ocean and its relationship to power, industry and tragedy, mortality and loss. His work “connects the overlapping histories and how it has shaped and defined the perilous journeys of enslaved people, migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.” The politics of the time informed and influenced Turner’s works, mainly as this was the time of the British Empire and colonialism and the time of the industrial revolution. So, here I am. Let me see how this Exhibition unfolds.
I was very intrigued by how artists depicted and challenged the idea of Englishness
The first thing that crosses my mind is the symbolism between the two artists. There has been much about colonialism and the British Empire in artists’ work lately. Combined with recent events of Queen Elizabeth 11 passing away and certain feedback of these recent events, it has provided much food for thought. When I saw the recent Exhibition, ‘Radical Landscapes’ at Tate Liverpool, I was very intrigued by how artists depicted and challenged the idea of “Englishness” and that we can never escape our colonial past. England and America will forever be bathed in the guilt of history. However, seeing this Exhibition confront our past and allow us to look into it rather than away from it was not only educational but also healing. We can’t run away, but we can look at ways of expressing and analysing history to aim to move forward and hopefully not make the same mistakes. Recent events have also highlighted how people have responded to the present emotionally and some reactions are not only patriotic but also see the Queen as a human being and someone they had grown up with, a comforting and normal person who was offered the throne via royal custom. Many, of course, felt differently. I can’t help pondering on this paradoxical situation that brings together human feeling, monarchy and history and how each person and how artist responded differently to this event and how it reflects our past and future and has become a turning point in time so that we can remember and hopefully grow and gain more wisdom within ourselves from this experience. It has been a strange and symbolic time.
I begin my tour of the Exhibition. I am aware of the music playing in the background. Turner often drew the views of Liverpool. The Exhibition starts with sketchbooks depicting his drawings of Liverpool from New Brighton and views from Birkenhead. 1831. These are fascinating little sketchbooks and could even have been drawn yesterday. It’s lovely to see and makes me reflect upon how many Liverpool artists have drawn these views. The sketches are loosely drawn to more detailed studies of boats and sailing ships which were a regular feature in his work.
The music at this point seems to contradict my expectations. There is a sense of waves and this feeling of the sea. I am very drawn to Turner’s sketchbook painting of the sea in his ‘Studies for Pictures Sketchbook, 1799.’
The studies of boats, jetties and Margate continue. 1831-45.
I come to some paintings of fishing boats being hauled ashore and ‘A Rocky Shore with Men Attempting to Rescue a Storm – Tossed Boat’ 1792 – 3.
Looking around, I see that there is certainly an incredible collection of works by Turner in this Exhibition.
I am not too inspired by these paintings for some reason today. I can’t help feeling the obsession with Turner and the Englishness and patriotism associated with the cult of Turner (similarly John Constable) is somewhat off-putting at times, but I do recognise that he is an exciting artist of the sea and there is more than meets the eye with his work. Again, I struggle to get gripped by the fishing boat and shipwreck drawings, but I will look at each one properly, so I don’t make assumptions. He was fascinated with the whole idea of the shipwreck and the massacre of the weather and waves. This rough water and movement of the crazy ocean and storms seem to have captivated him. Then we come to drawings and graphite studies of sailing ships and fishing boats, piers and fishermen and one of ‘The Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the body of Nelson c. 1807 – 19.
Again, the idea of battle and victorious captains does not intrigue me. I have always found it patriarchal, patriotic and bloodthirsty. However, there is no doubt that Turner’s drawings and watercolours are beautifully executed. His love for the sea is strong and I feel it. However, these dark stormy studies start to make you wonder about the subconscious mind of this artist. Was he troubled? Was he expressing and interpreting his own emotions with the sea? Or was he painting something he enjoyed?
We come to the section, ‘Whaling Scenes’. This is a sad area and of course, as an animal rights person, I am not objective on this subject.
I wasn’t aware that the whaling industry formed a small but essential part of Liverpool’s economy from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. The industry declined after 1800, as coal gas provided an alternative fuel. Turner seems to support whaling in his painting,’ Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! Exhibited in 1846. I suppose it was another era. I don’t know too much about animal rights issues of the 1800s. Maybe it’s something I can research. His painting is a mass of luminosity and abstraction, responding to fourteen whaling ships that had become stuck in the ice in the northern Atlantic Ocean and were eventually doomed there. I find myself thinking, “thank goodness the whales got away!”
The paintings are beautiful despite the subject matter. Turner’s abstraction and motion of light and colour are mythical and captivating. Other paintings show the blood of captured Wales, sea monsters, fishing nets, whalers boiling blubber, industry, snow storms, steamboats and of course, the famous painting, ‘Peace – Burial at Sea’ exhibited in 1842, which depicts the burial at sea of Turner’s friend, the artist Sir David Wilkie on 1 June 1841. Turner painted this in his memory.
I now begin my tour of Lamin Fofana. He presents three audio installations for this Exhibition, ‘Resounding Water’, 2022 and Ode to Impurity’, 2022, which play in the next space. “Fofana often aims to transmute important texts from Black authors into sound. Here he looks toward ‘Dark Water’, and ‘Voices from Within the Veil by the African American writer and activist WEB Du Bois. Published in 1920, the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, poetic fragments and allegories that interrogate white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and how these forces to interlink.”
As I read this, I can’t help comparing the plight of the suffering whales to the suffering of enslaved people, almost a symbolic cross reference due to the amalgamation of themes to do with war, captivity and Empire. There is a reference also to “Zong!” As said to the author by Setaey Adamu Boeting 2008, a book-length poem from M Noirbe Se Philip, recalls the legal battle following the murder of over 130 enslaved Africans on the slave ship Zong in 1781.
Fofana has linked his soundscapes that include field recordings from Liverpool and connects Europe with West Africa and North America, tracing the triangular trading route of the Atlantic slave trade. ‘Life and Death by Water also includes a hummed melody from Rivers of Babylon, the 1970 reggae song by The Melodians, which contains symbolism based upon the biblical psalm 137:1-4.”
The Exhibition continues with Turner’s Disasters at Sea, the music playing, ‘Life and Death by Water’ 2021 by Fofana. The Zong massacre influenced Turner as well as Fofana. Turner depicted this event in his huge painting ‘Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) 1840.
The massacre occurred in 1791 when the crew of the Zong murdered over 130 enslaved people, throwing them overboard into the Caribbean Sea.
Links to Liverpool merchants and slavery history are mentioned and this event became essential to the abolitionist movement as an example of the horrors of slavery. References to street names and the slave trade are cited. The Exhibition finalises with paintings and studies of Turner’s works regarding Sea, Light and colour. The watercolours are beautiful, particularly ‘Sunset through Dark Clouds over the Sea’ 1823 – 6 watercolours on paper.
Expecting the Exhibition to continue, I realise it has ended, encompasses only a few rooms, and is an intimate exhibition. And now is the time to reflect. What is this Exhibition saying to me? I can see that many people will interpret this Exhibition differently. For me, it allowed me to experience the work of William Turner with music, both mediums, painting and audio coming together to reflect upon history and how the sea has played an important role in art in terms of depicting emotion, battle, horror and conflict as well as calm and beauty.
For me, Turner’s works, combined with Fofana’s haunting and meditative music, took on a more eerie and political angle. The romantic whirls of tyranny and spirituality were still there. Still, the music and the themes such as war, killing and slavery indicated that the sea had been an ongoing story of death and brutality. Take from this Exhibition what you wish. For me, it was indeed a journey into darkness. The title is accurate but also a world that could be transcended towards the light as long as people’s approaches and responses to the world change. I found Fofana’s music calming and hopeful. Strangely it was Turner’s works that filled me with concern and horror. This was not, I felt, a collaboration but more a response.
Words/Photo: Alice Lenkiewicz
JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana Dark Waters 27 September 2022 – 4 June 2023