Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Reflection on Our Reflections on Slavery

This evening I attended an opening reception for the NY Historical Society's exhibit Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery. Kara Walker, Willie Birch, Whitfield Lovell and Betye Saar were among the many talented artists whose work was presented. It was like most other art openings - a mix of the high class, the art set and a few politicians here and there. It was mostly pretentious in its make up, but some interesting and well-meanging folks were there nonetheless.

What was different, however, was the surreal mix of this business as usual behavior with the somber works on display. Lifeless silhouettes hung from branches against a plain white backdrop. Frederick Douglass' matter-of-fact description of how he came to name himself as a freed man sat ensconced in a glass case. The haunting cut-out image of a slavemaster's sexual taunting of a young slave girl laid bare all its ugliness. The whole thing was disturbing.

But what was most unsettling was my experience at the simulated slave ship with two well-to-do, older black women. The three of us waited patiently as an Hispanic gentleman entered the cylindrical wooden tomb. Of all the entrants we had watched up until this point, he had been the first to actually close the door behind himself. He spent what seemed like an eternity in there, when finally one of the two ladies knocked and opened the door. He came out obviously not ready to end his experience, but we entered anyway. The space was quite small, yet still large enough for the three of us to stand somewhat comfortably together. One more would have been just enough to make us feel like sardines in a can...or slaves on a ship. (But no one was really interested in that experience. We were the first to go in as a group, making it possible to replicate that kind of constriction. But still not enough to truly feel trapped.)

As our eyes adjusted to the light, we could see the the reflection of the objects hanging outside through the tiny hole at the center front of the cylinder. The women chattered on incessantly about the light, the space, etc. Then one commented to the other, "my goodness isn't this just fabulous?" Blithely affirming, the other responded, "why yes it's just like the bowels of a slave ship!" I began to feel dizzy. I told the two women that it was too much for me and immediately turned for the door. The near total lack of light was disorienting, especially after twisting so quickly. I couldn't find that handle fast enough to get outta there.

I looked around for my white co-worker who invited me to the opening, and found him edging toward the exit. He commented on how the whole thing was so unsettling. All the chatty interaction seemed incongruent with the gravity of the subject matter. He would need to come back for a more private viewing to fully appreciate and respect the work. I agreed, and then wondered how my two partners in the "bowels of the slave ship" didn't as well.

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1 comment:

a kovach said...

As an artist who exhibits and one who has mounted museum shows it is always the case at art openings that the work gets somewhat ignored and cannot be truly experienced against the backdrop of smoozing and mildly intoxicated social meanderings. One cannot fully experience the full integrity and meaning of a work in the midst of a party. Openings celebrate the curators, the lenders and funders of institutions and lastly the artists. One must always return at a quieter time to experience the show.