A modern prism for slavery's past
By Felicia R. Lee The New York Times
Published: June 14, 2006
NEW YORK For the average museumgoer, the wrought-iron balustrade from Federal Hall, where George Washington took the
oath of office in 1789, may simply be an ornate piece of Americana. But for the conceptual artist Fred Wilson, it was the
starting point for a long riff on battles against oppression around the world.
Gesturing toward the swirls and arrows in the ironwork last week at the New-York Historical Society, Wilson said the name
of the balustrade's creator, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, got him thinking about the link between the French and American
Revolutions, American slavery and the revolt of Haitian slaves against France. He wandered the historical society's halls,
seeking concrete expressions of his ideas: busts of Washington and Napoleon, slave tags, slave shackles, a wooden
African-American figurine, a portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture.
"American history is related to all these different subjects, all these different places," Wilson said. But "in America - at
least how I was raised - it all gets whittled down to an American situation."
The result of his hunting expedition, "Liberté/Liberty," an installation of roughly a dozen objects with the railing as the
centerpiece, goes on view at the society Friday in "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery."
The sprawling exhibition includes work by 32 living artists, among them Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall, Betye Saar,
Lorenzo Pace, Cedric Smith, Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Eli Kince, Kara Walker and Whitfield Lovell.
The show, which runs through Jan. 7, is part of an 18-month program in which the historical society is exploring the theme of
slavery in New York and the nation. The "Slavery in New York" exhibition closed March 26 after six months, and "New York
Divided: Slavery and the Civil War," opens Nov. 17 and continues through April. The goal, museum officials say, is to
illustrate slavery's indelible legacy in American life and culture.
Contemporary artwork is a rarity at the 202-year-old historical society. "It's a landmark in terms of artists working with
museums," said Lowery Stokes Sims, president of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and a guest curator for
"Generally historians think of art as illustrating history," rather than being part of it, Sims said. But "the changes in art mark
history," she said.
Wilson, a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner who represented the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale, was
one of six artists commissioned by the society to create something for the show, using objects from the historical society's
Wilson, 51, said he was initially unimpressed when Cynthia Copeland, a "Legacies" curator, pointed out the balustrade to him
a few weeks ago. But slowly he began to see the possibilities.
"I had been interested in how design influences culture, how design is emblematic of culture," Wilson said. The balustrade,
he learned, was part of a redesign of the 1699 City Hall building by L'Enfant, who was French-born and fought with the
colonists during the American Revolution. "I was interested in the French-American connection.
"Then I saw the tags," Wilson added, meaning the metal slave tags, often used to identify enslaved Africans by their crafts.
It struck him that it might be interesting to attach them to the balustrade.
"Then I said, 'Bring me some slave shackles,'" he said, extending the contrast of liberty and freedom, the brutal and bloody
contradiction at the heart of the American quest for freedom.
He added the busts of Washington and Napoleon ("leaders, empire, the complicated nature of that"); the shackles of a
Georgia slave; badges worn by slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; a watercolor of L'Ouverture; and the wooden figurine of
a black man, from a 19th-century tobacco shop.
In a way, Wilson said, the figures are in conversation with one another.
Installing "Liberté/Liberty" last week, he ended up abandoning the idea of putting the slave tags on the balustrade. Instead
he attached them to the back of the busts. "Having them on the back strengthens the image of the underbelly of liberty," he
He put the wooden figurine in front of the railing ("down below, looking up") and the bust of Washington at the highest
Copeland said that as far as she knew, the tobacco-shop figurine is the only free-standing black figure in the society's
"The busts are clean and well-made; he's worn," Wilson said of the figurine. "A cigar-store Indian - or African - is not as
important as the president. I don't have to say that. It's embedded in the object."
Of museums in general Wilson said: "It's not what you have in your collection, but your point of view about what you have.
It's what you chose to display and where you place it."
He pointed to the shackles and grimaced.
"You can easily in a museum lose the seriousness of the things you're dealing with," he said. "Museums are good about making
you forget the context. Every once in a while you have to step back and say, 'My God, what am I dealing with?' I want
people to be blindsided by it and caught off-guard."
By having so many artists examine slavery, Wilson said, the show will invite visitors to make the same sort of connections that
he tries to make with his museum installations. He sees his own installations as critiques of the inherent "whiteness" of so
many museum collections.
"I really hope the historical society will use this exhibition as a jumping-off point, " Wilson said. "As much as
African-American artists like to talk about slavery, we don't want to leave it there."
The interracial husband-and-wife team Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, for example, created a contraption to turn
themselves over and over to create a living "topsy-turvy" doll. It is really two dolls, one black and one white, made so that
one doll's face and body is hidden under the skirt of the other until you flip it over. Their installation features a video of
themselves as the living doll.
The art historian Leslie King-Hammond and the architect José Mapily created a rendering of Seneca Village, Manhattan's
first significant community of African-American property owners (a site within what is now Central Park).
As Wilson installed his then still-untitled project last week, Copeland arrived with a finishing touch. It was a bright red
"liberty cap" for the tobacco- shop figurine. Since Roman times, in many cultures and countries around the world, such caps
have been worn by formerly enslaved people to signal their new freedom.
"No one will know what this is," Wilson said of the cap. And that, he said, may well encourage visitors to think about what it
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