Decorated with striking gold swirls and intricate patterns, bold red and blue sails adorn the smooth, mahogany-colored ship model, contrasting against ship models with aging white sails. Displayed on the lower level of the Addison Gallery of American Art, “Wanderer” was made in 2006 by Yinka Shonibare and is the first ship model to join the 24 other ships in the Addison’s ship collection in nearly 80 years.
“[The Wanderer is] different because it has these wild sails, which would not have been there in real life. This is the artistic license of the artist,” said Judith Dolkart, Director of the Addison. “He almost always uses Dutch wax textiles. We tend to associate them with Africa, but they were actually designed in Europe and sold in Africa. The artist incorporates them because it’s sort of about this legacy of colonialism and identity. What we think of as African or what we think of as European, sometimes, there’s a cross-cultural connection.”
The actual ship “Wanderer,” built in 1857, was the second to last ship to bring slaves into the United States. Its historical relevance and distinct background intrigued Dolkart as she regularly seeks out ship models that can provide a greater historical context to the Addison’s preexisting ship collection.
“I was finding that a lot of [ships in the collection] were commercial ships, but there wasn’t anything about slavery overtly. Thinking about how people came to this country, not everyone chose to come here and when Africans came here, they came here as property. In some ways, thinking about ships like Mayflower, where there was a choice to come here though it was an arduous journey, here, there was no choice. On the other side, thinking about commerce, there are other sorts of commerce represented by the ships [in the collection]. But this was a commerce that trafficked in people,” said Dolkart.
According to Dolkart, the “Wanderer” was originally built as a racing yacht. However, it soon became all part of a surreptitious plot to revive international slave trade, which had been banned for a half century in the United States, when it changed hands.
“[The second owner of the ship] had to hide his identity because other people knew he was interested in reviving the slave trade… Ultimately, they were discovered because there were a very big influx of African slaves and secondly, the people on the ship had been spending their money and in a very obvious way. They were prosecuted but they were never found guilty, so no one was punished for this crime,” said Dolkart.
Including “Wanderer,” all the ship models in the collection are built with the same proportional scale, where one foot of the ship equals a quarter-inch of the model.
“The very important thing about this collection is that all of these ship models are the same scale. So, it’s interesting when you look at it that the ‘Wanderer,’ considering that 487 slaves were put onto this ship and its size compared to the other ships here, really was a terrible voyage for the people on the ship,” said Dolkart.
According to Jamie Kaplowitz, Manager of Curriculum Initiatives at the Addison, the goal of the ship collection was to show students not only the beauty of the sailing ship, but also its contribution to the growth and prosperity of this country. Except for the new addition, the ships were all commissioned by the museum’s founder, Thomas Cochran, back in the 1930s.
“Each ship was specifically chosen to represent the different eras of merchant and naval ships. Because all of the ships were commissioned together, there is uniformity of scale, and this makes possible the understanding at a glance of the evolution of the sailing ship during four centuries of American history. Until 2016, this was a closed collection,” wrote Kaplowitz in an email to The Phillipian.
Other notable ship models included in the collection are “Mayflower,” the famous ship that brought the pilgrims to New England, “Corsair,” JP Morgan’s private yacht, and “Hannah,” the United States’ firstborn naval ship.