Negative Space and Silence

I used to take a lot of visual art classes, and one of the concepts I struggled with the most was finding something to do with the negative space. Teachers loved to remind me to make use of it, that it was just as present on the canvas as the space I dedicated to the subject matter. The command to think about negative space, a command I heard repeated in art class after art class, irritated me. I wanted to focus on the flowers I was painting, the face I was sketching. It was too much to also have to worry about the air that floated around and behind my subject. Who cares? No one should be looking there anyway. I spent so much time getting the shading just right on the nose. I added a great highlight to the vase of the glass. Please, just look at that.

But of course, I was wrong to dismiss the importance of negative space. Negative space is what allows the positive space to be positive. It shapes the subject matter. Whatever properties the negative space take on greatly affect how we perceive whatever the focus of the picture is supposed to be. You can do great things with negative space to get across whatever you want to be the point of your art.

What is silence but the negative space of poetry? The negative space between the words we say, the words to which we usually burden with all of the meaning of the piece? It is wrong to look at it this way. To say that words carry all the meaning and silence none is to say the flowers have all the importance and the negative space none. Silence can do a lot of work, sometimes just as much work as words. Sometimes even more.

Messages I have conveyed with my silence:
I am listening to you.

I don’t know what to say.

I know what to say, but I am uncomfortable saying it.

I am comfortable with you.

Please, go on.

I don’t want to talk about this anymore.

I am hoping you will stop.

I don’t agree, but I am uncomfortable saying that to you.

Messages I have taken from others’ silence:
I don’ care enough to respond.

I am listening to you.

I was not listening to you.

I don’t want to talk about this.

This is not important to me.

I am comfortable with you.

I don’t know what to say.
My body is present, but you are alone.

When we think of catastrophes, don’t we usually think of sounds? Explosions, screams of anguish, the firing of guns? Alarms? The use of silence and space in Zong! reminds us that often the most devastating thing to hear in a catastrophe is the lack of sound. The silences in Zong! represent all of the words that the drowned Africans can no longer say. This seems far more devastating than to focus on, for instance, their moans as the suffer deplorable conditions on board, or their screams as they are thrown into the sea. We can moan and scream and recover, but silence has a finality. In Zong! the silences are tied to an end. The end of these peoples’ ability to speak, the end of their existences. Those silences are more potent than anything M. NourbeSe Philip could have said with words. She is a master of the negative space.

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