Thursday, October 15, 2009

An African American Knife Box

This is the third in a series of posts highlighting the great folk art pieces from the Fenimore Art Museum collection included in our traveling exhibition “Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art” on view at the New York State Museum through January 6, 2010. My first two posts featured a carving of a Jim Crow figure for a tavern sign and an African American Cigar Store Indian. In both form and function these pieces are vastly different from the one I offer today: a knife box meant for domestic rather than public consumption.

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.


  1. Paul--

    This a great, very striking piece. Where and about when was it made?

  2. I wish we knew, Gary. Our best guess is that it was likely made in the South (although it was found in New York State) about the middle of the 19th century. It is an incredible piece. do go see it if you are in Albany.

  3. Wow! I've viewed this piece hundreds of times in reproductions and never saw the slave ship metaphor. It makes perfect sense though. This just makes it that much more incredible.

  4. That is one of the finest things I have ever seen. You are very lucky to have it.

  5. Yes, it is a surprise to alot of people, but once you think of it as a slave ship it seems so obvious. You are both right that we are very lucky to have it. Thanks for your comments.

  6. This has been one of my favorite pieces of folk art for many, many years. I've seen numerous illustrations, of course, but never the object in person. THANKS for sharing Paul.

    Jim Linderman
    Dull Tool Dim Bulb

  7. Thanks, Jim. It has been a revelation to me to see how many people know and love this piece. It really is a singularly important object. i'm glad you enjoyed the post.


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