Bailey’s painting derives from a late-eighteenth-century engraving diagramming a cargo ship that transported enslaved Africans to Jamaica. On each voyage, some five hundred people were carried in the hold. Revealing the brutal treatment of Africans as freight to be packed as tightly as possible for transport, the engraving became one of the most widely circulated abolitionist images of its day. Bailey altered the composition, removing nearly all of its text and more than half of its figures. He made nearly half of the remaining figures white, setting them opposite their Black counterparts. This “separate but equal” arrangement refers to the 1896 US Supreme Court decision upholding the legality of segregating public facilities for white and Black Americans. Made at the tail end of the civil-rights era, Bailey’s work implicitly links the nation’s ongoing systemic racism with the legacy of slavery.
Gallery label from 2021