Seeing to Remember: Representing Slavery across the Black Atlantic

 

Despite the significance of slavery as a critical theme in the art of the Black Diaspora, the history of slavery in America is often underrepresented in public art, public monuments, and museum collections in the United States. What are the specific gaps of knowledge in public memory and in museum collections? How should our institutions represent slavery in their exhibitions and collections? Anna Arabindan-Kesson, assistant professor in the departments of Art and Archaeology and African American Studies, investigated these questions this past spring together with eight undergraduate students in her new course, “Seeing to Remember: Representing Slavery across the Black Atlantic.”

Carrie Mae Weems (American, born 1953), House/Field/Yard/Kitchen, from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995–96. Chromogenic prints with sandblasted text on glass, each frame: 67.3 x 57.8 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The course met regularly in the Art Museum to draw on a modest but growing corpus of art that documents slavery and interprets historical narratives. Funded by the Museum’s Mellon Fund for Faculty Innovation in addition to the University’s 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, “Seeing to Remember” was cross-listed in African American Studies and Art and Archaeology and fulfilled the requirements of the Global Race and Ethnicity stream of the African American Studies major.

Poring over prints and drawings, photographs, paintings, and ceramic objects from the Museum’s collections that relate to the history of slavery, the class identified revealing juxtapositions. Ethnographical portraits of black models from the late nineteenth century examined alongside newly acquired contemporary tinted photographs by Carrie Mae Weems sparked a conversation about the ways science and technology “transformed the black body into an object—for study, for labor, for entertainment—whilst erasing the subjects’ experiences from archives, institutions, and histories,” Arabindan-Kesson explained.

Visits by artists to the class exposed students to a range of artistic responses to the violence of enslavement. Joscelyn Gardner, for example, described how her lithographs and video installations draw on historical processes of representation to address gendered silences. “She creates complicated and intimate portraits,” Arabindan-Kesson noted, “that point to the tangled networks of the institution of slavery to make space for the experiences and voices of women otherwise ignored.”

Histories of racial inequality, the students understood, tangibly impact institutions’ artifacts and narratives, but recent efforts at the Princeton University Art Museum to identify historical photographs and acquire contemporary art that addresses slavery, combined with rich material at the Princeton University Library, helped the students retrieve understudied experiences. Material concerns, however, can be as pressing as historical ones, and the class realized that attending to the preservation of available sources (such as nineteenth-century daguerreotypes), as well as to issues of access, must be part of an institution’s commitment to remembering the violence of slavery. For their part, the students have been working to share this knowledge through a multimedia online exhibition that interprets objects from the Museum’s collections; it will launch in the fall.

Juliana Ochs Dweck

Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement

 

Student Paper: Visual Analysis

Each student in “Seeing to Remember” wrote on two works from the Art Museum’s collections. An excerpt from one paper by Jamal Maddox, Class of 2017, is reproduced here:

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Chromogenic print from a digital file, 127 x 185.4 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The Cotton Bowl (2011) by Hank Willis Thomas

Thomas creates a powerful subtext in this work. The yard line and the cotton line run together. The sharecropper and the football player almost mimic each other. However, there is one important difference between the two. The football player casts a commanding gaze at the sharecropper. Because of his straw hat, the direction of the sharecropper’s gaze cannot be discerned. It is as if the football player is staring into a mirror. The football player’s intense, one-sided gaze grounds Thomas’s critique in the modern day.

Thomas goes even further: the football player is “branded.” His skin is physically branded: on his upper left arm, there is what looks like the Greek letter omega branded onto his skin. The products he wears also brand him. His Nike shoes are clearly visible, along with his Under Armour socks. . . . Unbound from the horrors of chattel slavery, but also from the “sentimentality” of slavery as depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sharecroppers were still stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. They were exposed to the brutal, calculating logic of the “market.” Thomas similarly strips the football player of any emotional attachment to a “team” or a family by removing all team logos. In doing so, he exposes the cold capitalist logic underneath. Thomas manages to fully capture the numerous ways that black Americans have been instrumentalized to achieve the imperatives of producers.