Representing Slavery: Rereading the Visual Narrative

How have artists, over the last two centuries, approached the subject of slavery? In the spring of 2017, the Princeton University class Seeing To Remember: Representing Slavery Across the Black Atlantic (AAS 349 / ART 364) attempted to answer this question by examining multiple, and often challenging, ways in which slavery has been represented, investigated and commemorated in art from across Britain, the United States, the Caribbean and West Africa. The culmination of our exploration is this exhibition which charts a path between the history of slavery and its ongoing legacies, a relationship we have organized into three themes: Staging, Reclaiming and Reconfiguring. Although the objects we have chosen from the Princeton University Art Museum are made by artists based in the United States and Britain, they do reflect the historical breadth of our investigations and include art works that range from the eighteenth into the twenty-first century.

Moving between the past and the present, the works on view help us understand the historical repercussions of slavery. Prints in the first category Staging might reveal, or conceal, the exploitative social relations underpinning the institution. Other works in this group demonstrate how the structure of slavery also directly influenced the visual representation of Black bodies across the Atlantic Ocean. The categories of Reclaiming and Reconfiguring address these visual repercussions in different ways. In Reclaiming we see how artists have refuted and negated specific visual stereotypes and techniques associated with the objectification of the Black body. And in Reconfiguring we follow artists’ often provocative interpretations of slavery as a form of historical remembrance. Here we see the way artists reuse and appropriate a range of historical material and aesthetic forms to engage issues of memory and commemoration alongside grappling with slavery’s continued socioeconomic implications for the United States today. 

Anna Arabindan Kesson 
Assistant Professor of Art and Archaeology and African American Studies