Ellen Gallagher’s delicate paintings, drawings, and collages often reference literary sources. Much of her oeuvre has evolved from her incessant interest in the notion of the archipelago— a cluster of islands whose cultures interact in complex ways. The writings of Martinican writer, poet, and literary critic Edouard Glissant about the intermingling—or creolization—of cultures and languages across the Caribbean have been a constant source of inspiration to Gallagher, as has the Creole poetry of Philip Wheatley and Aime Cesaire. The ruled penmanship paper she frequently uses as backgrounds for her multilayered works also alludes to the textual, while the pictorial foregrounds subvert the traditional primacy of text over image.
In 1986, the young Gallagher spent a semester aboard an oceanic research vessel to study the migratory patterns of microscopic wing-footed snails. While she watched the creatures during the night, by day she made precise drawings of their features. That experience continues to inspire her painterly explorations of Drexciya, a mythical black Atlantis at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Founder of the myth was the late James Stinson, a Detroit-based techno producer who collaborated with Gerald Donald under the stage name Drexciya. The title of Gallagher’s Dr. Blowfin’s Black Storm (2014), for example, references one of their tracks. According to Stinson, the underwater world of Drexciya was created when pregnant African women who were thrown off slave ships gave birth to offspring capable of breathing underwater. In Gallagher’s artistic imagination the myth becomes one of regeneration, in which the bones of drowned African slaves band into small interdependent life forms that realize the dream of pan-African harmony on the sea bottom, unhindered by the borders that divide nations and their inhabitants on the land above.