Frank Bowling, Middle Passage, 1970

An abstract painting of bright oranges, yellows, pinks, and greens with different, repeating images.

Synthetic polymer paint, silkscreen ink, spray paint, wax crayon, and graphite on canvas. Menil Collection, Houston. Image by Adam Neese. © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved, DACS, London & ARS, New York 2022.

When Larry Rivers, a white artist, curated “Some American History,” he invited Bowling to contribute a work that addressed his “South American–West Indian background.”

Bowling responded with a densely layered composition combining washes of bright paint, screen-printed photographs, stenciled maps and letters, and other visual elements. Among the figures and places in the photographs are the artist’s sons, his mother, and his mother’s store. Stenciled and painted over, these images slide into illegibility. “I named the painting Middle Passage because I am a product of the middle passage,” Bowling stated in the exhibition’s catalogue. “But…I do not bring my images together because of the history and brutality of that terrible crossing, but rather in spite of it.”