“Invisible Passage” at the de Young

Commissioned by the de Young Museum’s Cultural Encounters Program during Todd Brown’s July 2009 tenure as Artist-in-Residence, Invisible Passage is now back on display in the Kimball Education Gallery as part of his current Artist Fellows project. The painting, measuring 33 feet by 9.5 feet, is Brown’s largest work to date.

Todd Brown working on Invisible Passage in July 2009

As a mediation on “collective” history, the painting invokes the complex interweave of human stories/histories that ripple across generations and are playing themselves out in today’s world. While Invisible Passage references a specific past–that of the “middle passage" endured by African slaves and their exploiters over the course of more than 400 years, Brown states that this work is intended to encourage us to look more deeply into the present world around us, to see into its layers, layers that seem infinite in number and kind. He proposes the idea that generations do not live in succession, one after another, but, rather, each lives through the next, thereby making past and present a unified field–our stories (histories) have made us, and yet we are all the time engaged in the creative act of remaking the world over – the history to come.

White guy paints 33 foot slave ship and hangs it in a museum
reflections from the artist...
The question comes up often as to why I chose to paint this large painting based on the diagram of the inside deck of a 1700’s slave ship. The question, however, is often less about the piece itself, than it is about my relationship to this specific content as a white artist exploring a theme that is generally looked upon as part of black history in the Americas. I find it helpful to speak to this issue directly as, in so doing, many more directions in conversation and dialog can take shape.
     I think it’s fair observation to say that when a black American artist paints a slave ship, the viewer naturally assumes that the artist is exploring, in one way or another, the subject matter of his/her heritage. However, if the artist is white, this assumption–that of the exploration of one’s heritage–
does not carry over, though the ships of the African slave trade were designed, built and sailed, mostly by European whites and therefore constitute part of their racial heritage. In other words, it’s unlikely that work of a white artist painting a slave ship would be seen as an investigation into “white” history. I mention this because it reveals some interesting assumptions about how we view these intensely charged historical symbols, but also, more specifically, because I wish for us to see beyond these singular narratives. I think of the writer James Baldwin’s insistence that our (American) history is a shared history–that the idea of either side (black or white) possessing a purity blood is a fiction–and that this shared history has literally, even biologically, bound us to one another now and forever. It is with this sentiment that I engage this subject matter, for I do indeed feel bound to the many and multiple peoples that have come to be a part of this country where I was born. Our lives are saturated with the realities of the others around us, near and far, by both blood and economics, and of course, also, by love. When I invoke the image of a slave ship, I am invoking something deeply personal that lives as a root in the ground of the culture that formed me, and in doing this so too do I feel keenly aware of the cultures that came, and were destroyed, before it. Like many other artists, I am obsessed with understanding this ground.  How else can we come to know exactly where we stand in this strange world and living that we’ve inherited.

Todd Brown re-installing Invisible Passage in June 2011



During these next two months in the Artist Studio, Brown will be developing new works and curating a series of performances that are inspired by Invisible Passage and that explore the theme of making the “invisible” visible.