Studio Note #6 – In the Hold

A display case in the exhibition In the Hold by Vincent Vulsma contains a selection of eighteenth-century books that show how the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC) meticulously recorded its part in the triangular trade or slave trade, in which the company specialised from 1740. We see the administration of one of these journeys: the fourth voyage of Vrouw Johanna Cores, which plied the transatlantic slave trade from 1751 to 1772. The day-to-day business of the voyage is carefully recorded: the coordinates, the weather, the wind direction, the events on board the ship. Much is known about her cargo: we can read that the items brought from Middelburg to be traded included ‘bruyn blaauw guinees’, ‘yzere staven’, ‘vaetjes buskruyd’ and ‘glase mokken’ (‘brown-blue Guinea’, ‘iron bars’, ‘barrels of gunpowder’ and ‘glass mugs’). The cargo brought back to the Netherlands is also known: as well as sugar and coffee beans, it included barrels containing a total of 11,281 Middelburg pounds (5,276 kg) of raw indigo. In short, the documents contain a great deal of information. This is not the case however for the ‘Middle Passage’, as the second leg of the voyage was known. The cargo during this leg consisted of enslaved people, who were traded for the goods brought from Middelburg. From that moment, they were reduced to a number and were further referred to only as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ when auctioned in the Dutch colonies.

Vulsma has created three series of works based on documents preserved by the Zeeland Archives, and the role played by textiles and indigo in the slave trade and the development of the contemporary, globalised world. These works are shown together in the exhibition In the Hold. The work Return consists of a series of abstract sculptures based on the coordinates of the slave ship Vrouw Johanna Cores. One indigo sculpture will be created for each of the 202 positions recorded in the ship’s log during her fourth voyage. The first examples of these are shown at Hotel Maria Kapel. Each sculpture consists of a volume of 26 kg of indigo, which has been compressed into solid blocks using an age-old technique. This form was traditionally used to make the indigo suitable for storage and transport. Vulsma ordered the raw indigo used to make the sculptures from indigo workers in India, where this natural product is still produced in a very labour-intensive way. The volume of raw material required for each sculpture (which represents 24 hours at sea) requires modern-day indigo workers to carry out 96 hours of manual labour.

Although indigo has been in use in various continents for centuries, the cultivation of the blue dyestuff began in India, to which it also owes its name (from the Greek word indikón, which means Indian). From the time it became possible to bypass traders in the Middle East by sea, the profit margin on indigo increased, and thus also demand. Following the Portuguese, the Dutch and English became involved in the trade in this luxury product. The Dutch made effective use of their colony Batavia (now Jakarta), and soon vast quantities of the substance were being shipped to Europe (Balfour-Paul 2000: 44).

In the seventeenth century, the European demand for indigo increased to such an extent that the colonies began to be used for the large-scale cultivation of indigo. The problem of finding the heavy labour necessary to produce indigo was ‘solved’ by forcing local labourers to work, and by importing enslaved people. This gave rise to an entire trading system based around indigo, which spread across four continents and which could not have arisen without forced labour and bloodshed. The cotton fabric dyed with indigo in Asia was exported to Africa via Europe, where it was traded for enslaved people. These people were subsequently put to work in the West Indian colonies to produce even more indigo for consumption in Europe. As the price of indigo rose, the product itself became a form of currency that could be exchanged for enslaved people, with the weight of the indigo being equal to the weight of one naked African (Balfour-Paul 2000: 59-60).

The works in the series Guinea focus on another element of the historical global trading chain. ‘Guinea cloth’ was a type of cotton fabric produced in India to be used by slave traders as a trading cargo for export to the Gulf of Guinea via Europe. The trade in Guinea cloth had major socio-economic consequences, which had a profound effect on the rise of industrial textile production in Europe (Kriger 2009: 105). The hold of Vrouw Johanna Cores was also largely filled with this Indian cloth during her fourth outward voyage. The work of Vincent Vulsma consists of a series of jacquard woven fabrics made from unbleached cotton yarn spun by hand in India. The unique weaves of the work are based on data from the digitised logs of eighteenth-century slave ships of the MCC fleet. The combination of digital data and processes with the materiality of the raw cotton results in a fabric that is visibly a hybrid of craft and digital processes. The transfer of binary data to the woven fabric is so exact that the fabric can be seen as a form of data storage. Here too, the presentation of the work refers to the history of trade and transport, as the fabrics are displayed on rolls that can be rolled out as far as the dimensions of the exhibition space permit. The length of the fabric is determined by the digital file size for each ship, and varies from work to work. Each work is an artistic interpretation of the information contained in the log, and reflects on the processes of abstraction inherent in logistical operations and their effects on material reality.

The series Voyage #3,…,#10 consists of a collection of Indian and (antique) African textiles that are hand-woven, hand-spun and dyed with natural indigo. Once again, the Vrouw Johanna Cores serves as a point of departure: the coordinates of one of the eight triangular voyages are used for each work in the series. A laser cutter has burnt most of the indigo out of the fabric, exposing the daily coordinates of the ship recorded in the log. As subtle as the work is, the familiar shape of the triangular voyages can still be recognised. The movements of the laser cutter follow a grid pattern, which corresponds to the geographical division of the earth into meridians: the imaginary pattern of lines and areas that makes it possible to specify any point on the surface of the earth, and to facilitate and control the navigation of the world using these abstractions. This familiar pattern means that the works resemble a map, were it not for the fact that the fabric must be moved by hand during the process, leading to visible imperfections in the grid.

By translating the coordinates of the voyages of Dutch trading ships from a digital database, and hours of labour, into physical forms, Vulsma links the processes of labour and production to (the history of) transport and trading routes. It is sometimes said that the greatest violence to which enslaved people were subjected stems from their reduction to a number, goods to be traded, things, that to dehumanise a human being is the greatest crime. ‘Western civilisation’ is proud of its science, which is seen as rational and which played an important role in the development of the capitalist system that now encompasses the entire world. In his work, Vulsma has pursued the method of rational abstraction to its limits, and has expressed it using the minimal visual language characteristic of his practice. It is a language that is familiar in art, and which can be seen as typical of a Western idea of beauty and rationality. Here however, the minimal form and presentation draw our attention to that which is missing: the people involved with and caught up in this trade, and the many hours of physical labour required to produce the materials used. The modern visual language used to condense the routes and translate them into works in an exhibition space implies a history of violence in which art – as an expression of this same modernity – is complicit. In short, the logic of exhibition practice is used here to highlight this complicity of the infrastructure of the art world, and reflects on the processes of outsourcing and distribution associated with contemporary artistic production.

The work Return takes this reflection a step further by formulating its own logistical conditions, and tracing out a route. Each time the work is presented, new indigo will be imported, which – compressed into unique sculptures – will represent different coordinates each time, until the entire route of the ship has been visualised as blocks of indigo. In this way, the work creates its own chain and exposes the relationship between the logic of historical trade operations and the contemporary chain of production and presentation within the network of the international art world. This process means that the workers in India who produce the raw indigo for Vulsma are involved in each new presentation, and become an integral part of it. The relationship between their role and that of Vulsma equates to the global division of labour that has existed since the sixteenth century, in which Asia is ‘the world factory’ (Nimako 2011: 55). Products are produced there and elsewhere by relatively cheap labour – and not always under good conditions – for the convenience and entertainment of the West. It is an unequal symbiotic relationship, which we all constantly benefit from without really being aware of it. This is the motivation behind Vulsma’s desire to reproduce and expose this relationship.

The exhibition In the Hold asks questions about how contemporary social, economic and cultural structures are interconnected with the history of capitalism, formed as it is by imperialist logistical systems and the trade in enslaved people. To what extent is contemporary artistic practice complicit in the perpetuation of unequal global power relationships? One thing is certain: the autonomy of the artwork and the neutrality of the exhibition space are no terra nullius to be inscribed or claimed without an understanding of history and the journeys taken to arrive here.

Irene de Craen

Originally published in Studio Note #6 (January 2018), Hotel Maria Kapel (HMK) (download here)

Image: Indigo factory, 1850. Photo: Captain R. B. Hill (source: Gilman Collection)


Balfour-Paul, Jenny. Indigo. London: British Museum Press, 2000.

Kriger, Colleen. ‘‘Guinea Cloth’: Production and Consumption of Cotton Textiles in West Africa, before and during the Atlantic Slave Trade.’ In: Riello, Giorgio, Prasannan Parthasarathi (red.), The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, Oxford University Press, 2009:105-126.

Nimako, Kwame, Glenn Willemsen. The Dutch Atlantic. Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation. London: Pluto Press, 2011.

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