The Addison Gallery of American Art curates a model ship collection that visually recounts the evolution of American ships from 1480 to 1923. During her tenure, however, former Director of the Addison Judith Dolkart realized that the collection was missing an important narrative involving the slave trade. After four years of careful search and negotiation with various collectors, “The Wanderer”, a model reflecting the history of American slavery, became the first model ship added to the Addison’s collection in over 80 years.
“The Wanderer” is a sculpture crafted by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare in 2006. The ship is made from wood, plexiglass, and brass, and its sails are colored with patterns along the Dutch wax-print cloth. According to Jamie Gibbons, Head of Education at the Addison, the ship’s sail pattern is open to a variety of interpretations.
“The sails speak both as a symbol of African culture and as a symbol of colonialism. By using this textile as a sail, it’s like they’re sailing under African colors, but could also be read as symbolic of the diaspora,” wrote Gibbons in an email to The Phillipian.
Originally used as a racing yacht and pleasure schooner, the small ship was later used to smuggle enslaved people from Africa to the U.S. by hundreds at a time. Dolkart described the ship as an important reminder of the sufferings and injustices inflicted upon enslaved people.
“Almost 500 people were crammed into the ship in a very inhumane way… The suffering that the people who were on ‘The Wanderer’ went through was just abominable… It’s important to face those parts of history that are the worst so that we know them,” said Dolkart.
Recently, the Addison has been trying to collect other pieces to depict a more complete version of American history. According to Allison Kemmerer, Interim Director of the Addison, obtaining “The Wanderer” was a step in this larger goal of sharing the stories that go untold.
“Rather than compartmentalizing objects by media or time period, we [at the Addison] are interested in ways in which works of art speak to each other across time and media, formally, historically, and thematically. We have recently been focusing on expanding our collection by acquiring more works by women, African American, Asian American, Latinx, [LGBTQIA+], Native American, and other artists of historically marginalized communities,” wrote Kemmerer in an email to The Phillipian.