Our knife box has intrigued scholars of African American culture for decades, at least since John Vlach’s landmark 1974 catalogue The Afro-American Tradition in the Decorative Arts. This box is distinctly African in carving style, which alone would make it a rare and important survival. But the truly striking reality of this piece is not the style; it is the subject.
One need only look at the knife box for a minute before it hits you: it’s a slave ship. The sides of the box, and particularly the rows of eight articulated figures along two of the sides, strongly suggest rows of slaves packed tightly onto a ship for a trans-Atlantic crossing. The handle of the knife box is a large upright in the center carved into the shape of a head, perhaps representing a slaver or overseer of the voyage and “cargo.” The area belowdecks, as you can see, is completely surrounded by vertical slats that appear to represent iron bars.
The guest curator for “Through the Eyes of Others,” Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, says of this piece: “African Americans expressed their identity through the creation of decorative objects as well as through depictions of self. This knife box tells a story of the movement of people and of the carver’s cultural identity.”
A utilitarian object, made for the home, carrying strong visual clues to a cultural memory of a nightmarish voyage. And like the voyage itself, the symbolic value of the box’s function – holding knives – is impossible to escape.