Inspired by Fred Wilson’s 1992 art intervention, “Mining the Museum,” the Art History Department’s Museum Studies class at the University of Wisconsin–Madison used the collections of The Chazen Museum of Art to locate and interpret objects related to the enslavement of Black people in the Americas.
Current calls for social justice demand that we act to confront racism both today and in the past. In this exhibition, we investigate how historical art and design objects contain untold stories of slavery and how the museum as an institution enables racism through the glorification of slaveowners and the underrepresentation of Black artists. We seek to reveal the ways in which the unfree and unjust labor of enslaved people has been fundamental to the creation of our society and institutions.
Looking at the Chazen’s collection, many objects related to sugar and coffee—two driving forces of the transatlantic slave trade. The enslaved peoples forced to harvest and produce sugar were the same enslaved peoples barred from enjoying the sugar bowls and tongs held by the museum. Like sugar, coffee was a product of the slave economy, yet a luxury many enslaved Black people could not afford. The silver coffee pot is an excellent example of the beautiful wares that were enjoyed by a few select members of the white upper class, yet a direct product of the enslaved labor. A punch bowl, coveted for its beautifully painted imagery of British imperialism, held several of these commodities inside—rum, sugar, and fruits—all produced by slave labor from plantations of the West Indies and South America. Stripping away the associations these household items evoke of elegance and beauty, one can see embedded the oppressive labor and injustice that brought them to fruition.
This exhibition also includes bodies of work that portray enslaved people in a derogatory and often racist manner. One such work is the engraving and etching entitled A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 2, that affords a young Black servant space at the edge of the frame. We draw a comparison between the stereotypes of Black women in A Harlot’s Progress and the extremely racist Land Stores etching. The latter depicts a Black woman as a prostitute amongst white male soldiers.
Conversely, figures in the federal government, such as Chief Justice John Marshall and President James Polk, had undeniable influence over the institution of slavery. The objects represented–John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and Dessert Plate (from President James Polk’s White House Service)–however, do not fully convey the power of enslavers over enslaved people. The hidden narratives, once again, reveal an under representation of enslaved labor brfore the Civil War. This lack of representation in many forms, including museums, continues to this day.
Some objects tell a more complicated story of resistance tied to abolitionism, as seen through the eyes of white artists and makers. Josiah Wedgwood’s black basalt sugar basin is not a celebration of the sugar produced in the West Indies; instead, it might sit as a reminder of the consumer’s obligation to resist commodities made by enslaved labor. We also confront the celebrated legacy of another abolitionist, President Abraham Lincoln, particularly due to his involvement in UW–Madison’s founding through his land grant order displacing native Ho-Chunk people. The Emancipation Group depicts Lincoln towering above a kneeling, newly-freed slave. This suggests a celebration of the white savior abolitionist as well as the continued subservience and inferiority of Black people. Even the collection’s Slavery ceramic jug sparks many conversations about the experience of enslaved people in America—combining a devastating scene of a family separated during auction with popular iconography from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Our exhibition begins and concludes with contemporary interpretations of Black experiences in America. Kara Walker’s African/American subverts traditional representations by using the antebellum-style silhouette form to investigate intersecting identities of Blackness, gender, and sexuality. She explores the double-consciousness of being both Black and American. As a Black artist, Walker provides a far more nuanced portrayal of the Black body and experience in contrast with white artists such as Thomas Ball, who made The Emancipation Group. In the photography series An African American Alphabet, artist Wendy Ewald uses student drawings and words to amplify voices of the Black experience, further highlighting the importance of this exhibit is bringing the experiences and legacy of slavery to the modern viewer.
Following voices crying for social justice in the summer of 2020 and confirming the deep unacknowledged histories of racism, this class set out to “find American slavery” in the Chazen Museum of Art on our campus. Searching for such an explicit category in the museum’s collection was largely fruitless.
But material culture analysis looks for the stories that objects can tell even when their meanings are embedded, ignored, unspoken, and erased. We found people whose unfree and unjust labor built a global trade, a society that enslaved or tried to free them, and artists who have used Black bodies to degrade or tell uncomfortable truths.
We were struck at how little society has changed since Blacks were freed from the horrors of slavery. Racism and inequalities are still hidden and denied in our own objects, lives and institutions. This exhibition asks us to continue hunting for slavery and its legacies. We can end the silence.
Exhibition Credits: Professor Ann Smart Martin, Sydney Tang, Sophie Plzak, Erin Jordan, Panagioti Tsiamis, Erin Coron, Natalie Lambert, and Anthony Duvall Bozanich. Lambert and Bozanich designed the website.
Acknowledgments: A special thanks to Katherine Alcauskas, Amy Gilman, and the Chazen Museum of Art for their assistance with this collection.
Thank you to all the guest speakers who provided their knowledge, support, and guidance during the Art History 601 Fall 2020 class: Amy Gilman, Katherine Alcauskas, Simon Newman, Anna Agbie-Davies, Jon Prown, Andrea Gyrody, and Matthew Rarey.