Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect On Slavery

Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect On Slavery


By Maymanah Farhat




Malcolm Bailey, "Hold, Separate but Equal"


On extended view at the New York Historical Society, from June 16, 2006 through January 7, 2007, Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect On Slavery is an exhibition featuring some of the most renowned African American artists. Legacies is part of a three-part series of exhibitions on the history of slavery in New York, featured at the New York Historical Society (2005 to 2007).


With the consultation of The Studio Museum of Harlem's President, Lowery Stokes Sims, Kathleen Hulser and Cynthia R. Copeland curated the exhibition along seven thematic premises: Struggles Untold, Great Escapes, Worth, Work, Hope, Scars and Survival. These themes are visible throughout the exhibition and frequently overlap in individual works. As Sims highlights in the exhibition catalog, since the emergence of the first academically trained African American artists in the nineteenth century, the history of slavery and the racial inequality that followed has been an imperative topic addressed in the artistic sphere.


Thirty-two critically acclaimed artists, such as Renee Cox, Faith Ringgold and Kara Walker, are brought together in an exhibition of contemporary art that demonstrates the ways in which the history of slavery in the United States continues to haunt the American psyche. The exhibition features installation work, video, sculpture, painting, photography and mixed media.




The fact that the topic of slavery and its ramifications within the contemporary consciousness is the focal point of this provocative and important exhibition is indicative of a societal tension that is both omnipresent and debilitating in all aspects of American life. Yet rarely within the contemporary art world do we see the assembly of such a range of challenging work that explores the sociopolitical legacy of racism in the United States.  


Eli Kince, "Fruits of Labor"


Formally and conceptually, Eli Kince's multimedia installation (which includes "Fruits of Labor", 1994) is both engaging and introspective with his exploration of regeneration from the sprits and narratives of slaves.


While Fatima Allotey's "Me, Myself, My Ears", 2000, is seemingly out of place and ambiguous to the topic at hand, Malcolm Bailey's 1969 piece, "Hold, Separate but Equal" still resonates a century after the "Plessy v. Fergusson" Supreme Court Decision legally upheld segregation in the United States. 



Renee Cox's "Queen Nanny: Maroon Series", 2004 and Kara Walker's "Scene 18", from the "Emancipation Approximation" series, 1999-2000, manipulate imagery of the past in an attempt to reposition and refute perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans. Unfortunately, both artists do so in easily resolved conceptual approaches that leave little to the imagination and virtually no room for further reflection. 




The most memorable piece in the exhibition is Ellen Driscoll's "The Loophole of Retreat," 1991-1992. The epic installation work engulfs the viewer upon immediate encounter with both its colossal presence and imagination. The mixed-media installation is based on Harriet Jacob's renowned 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Within the installation space, a large cylinder made of wood evokes the claustrophobic structures of enclaves that hid fugitive slaves such as Jacob. Moving objects (as though part of a massive clock) circumnavigate the impressive wooden replica and are projected into a camera obscura, signifying what must have felt like an unyielding period of seven years of hiding for the nineteenth century author. Driscoll's space is dream-like with the larger-than-life presence of her architectural rendition, which serves as the focal point of the installation, and the surrealist realm created by rotating objects such as bones. The vessel has a haunting affect on the viewer, as it evokes the sense of isolation and immobility Jacob must have experienced while seeking refuge from racial persecution.



Fatima Allotey, "Me, Myself, My Ears"


Numerous works are monumental in scale and although they require individual gallery spaces that would allow the viewer to be fully engaged in a particular piece without interruption, the exhibition is crowded into just a few rooms of the New York Historical Society. Such installation of the exhibition is both a disservice to the work and the severity of the issues explored. An art institution would have better served the work, with more space and the proper environment needed to showcase contemporary art. However, this does not detract from the great efforts of the exhibition curators and the New York Historical Society, as Legacies is both timely and impacting.


Since Legacies probes the undercurrents of American society along lines of race, class and gender using contemporary modes of aesthetic representation, such a groundbreaking exhibition should be accompanied by a more thorough and critical analysis of the work it features within a historical context of American art. Several questions arise that should be explored within the domain of American art and visual culture: What types of challenges have African American artists faced within the American art world and art historical discourse? How have their contributions been ignored or downplayed? What are the intersections between art and American history and society? How has the politically internalized legacy of slavery penetrated the ways in which African American art is categorized, valued, exhibited and documented within the art world?


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Kara Walker, "Scene 18"



Such questions are not to be answered by the New York Historical Society, but by the art world itself. Furthermore, why wasn't Legacies featured at an art institution in collaboration with the New York Historical Society, so that the importance of such work could be articulated to the art world? In the exhibition catalog, Sims writes, "the visitor is invited to experience history as art, while mediating on art as history." After viewing this commanding exhibition at the New York Historical Society when it should have been brought to the forefront of American art at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art or The Whitney Museum of American Art, one question remains: when will the art world xperience history as art, while mediating on art as history?