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State of the Arts: Oberlin Exhibit Explores the Shadow of Slavery

This fall, media outlets, universities and people around the world are remembering the year 1619, the year a ship carrying more than 20 slaves came ashore in what is now Virginia. An exhibition at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin looks at how artists are exploring slavery and the African Diaspora.

In this week's State of the Arts, we take a walk through "Afterlives of the Black Atlantic."

I first meet artist José Rodríguez outside the museum where he's piecing together the skeleton for a 12-foot-tall shrine to be installed inside as part of the exhibition.

The outside of the piece is referencing the Virgin of Regla, the virgin of rules, the patron saint of Havana. 

"She represents, in the African Diaspora, Yemayá who is the goddess of the oceans and the waters," Rodríguez said.

The saint was originally brought to Cuba by enslaved Africans who as a defense mechanism practiced their religion with a face of Christian iconography.

"In one hand she’s carrying a whip and in the other hand she’s carrying a cross. So the religion came at the price of punishment in a sense."

The piece is titled 'Sǝk-ǝr, the phonetic spelling for the words sucker and succor. 

"On one level we have sucker, s-u-c-k-e-r, and nobody wants to be a sucker," Rodríguez said. "But yet when we pray we ask for succor, s-u-c-c-o-r. So it's a play on the mundane and the sacred together in one piece."

Examining 1619
The slave trade from across the Atlantic Ocean started well before 1619, maybe even a century earlier.

"The slave trade is something that different artists have contended with in different ways all around the Atlantic rim and continue to do so now," Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Andrea Gyorody said.

The year 1619 is the starting point for a deep and complex conversation.

"I think it’s something that people have latched onto because they want to have some kind of concrete moment to think about how much time has passed and really how much time hasn’t passed in some other ways," Gyorody said. 

Each of the exhibition’s 29 works explores the tentacles of slavery that are woven into the fabric of the Americas.

"In integrating works in this exhibition from Latin America, from the Caribbean, from the United States and from Africa, (we wanted to) show much longer, transnational histories of slavery that don’t necessarily have a solid historical starting point, but as the exhibition makes clear, don’t necessarily have an end either," Oberlin Assistant Professor of Art History Matthew Rarey said. 

Most of the artwork is contemporary and many of the pieces in 'Afterlives' are from Oberlin's permanent collection, though it's not organized based on chronology or geography.

Co-curators Andrea Gyorody and Matthew Rarey talk about the Oberlin area's relation to the Underground Railroad and two works featured in 'Afterlives of the Black Atlantic' that have Northeast Ohio ties.
Black Atlantic Oberlin Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Untitled (Revenge) is an installation piece on the floor of the exhibition by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece of candy, alluding to the sugar trade's role in slavery.

Gyorody said she wanted the pieces to play off of one another and tell a larger story.

"The fact that most of the works in the gallery were made in the last 30 years speaks to the fact that contemporary artists are engaged with the legacy of the slave trade, that this isn't some kind of past historical event that doesn't resonate today." 

In putting together the exhibition, Gyorody and Rarey credit the work of  Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe and Paul Gilroy

Caroline Jackson Smith, Oberlin professor of theater and Africana studies, applauded the exhibition, but said the legacy of slavery is not something in the past.

Amazing Grace
There’s a faint hymn playing throughout the gallery that follows you. It's coming from a video installation of a woman in a white dress wading slowly into blue waters.

"This is 'Amazing Grace' being sung by the artist Wangechi Mutu, who was born and raised in Kenya in her native language of Kikuyu," Rarey said. 

He said the artist assumed the song had come from the black cultures of the American South.

"She was surprised to learn later through her research that the song was actually penned by a white, English slave trader who later became an abolitionist in the 1780s."

The artist's voice lingers as you turn the corner towards a white canvas with burn marks from a clothing iron, evoking the shapes of slave ships and African masks.

The piece is "Proctor Silex (Evidence and Presence)" by artist Willie Cole.

Gyorody points to the burn marks that represent the branding irons used on slaves to designate which country they originated from.

"It also relates to domestic labor in the Americas, which for a very long time was carried out by black women," she said. 

Standing before the burned canvas is a figure made out of a household iron representing the deity Ògún.

"Ògún is a deity from Yorùbá-land in Southwestern Nigeria who is a deity who is related to hard work, to persistence, but also specifically to iron and to fire. And Yorùbá religion is a religion that has persisted and thrived in the United States. So as much as he’s alluding to that absence, that loss, he’s also putting front and center the persistence and the transformation of the African religions in the Americas," Rarey said.

Willie Cole Proctor Silex (Evidence and Presence) Black Atlantic
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
For Proctor Silex (Evidence and Presence) artist Willie Cole used a household iron to burn shapes into canvas evoking slave ships and African masks.

The African Diaspora
The works in the exhibition delve into the complexity of how slavery robbed millions of their own histories and forever altered generations.

"This was a major point that we wanted to bring forth in the show is that there is something about the history and the trauma of slavery that makes it almost unpresentable. What you see are a lot of contemporary artists who are reckoning with this problem of visibility and this problem of complicity in looking at what is difficult to understand, what is hard potentially to process," Rarey said. 

"And doing that through abstraction and conceptual works and works that allude to bodies and then ask you to be complicit in their viewership or bringing forth secrets that perhaps we weren’t supposed to know." 

It's that complexity that José Rodríguez is showing us with his 12-foot-tall shrine incorporating Saint Regla. It includes an elaborately embroidered cape representing the transition from African deity to Catholic saint, but instead of a face at the top there is a mirror looking down on the viewer.

"All of that history belongs to all of us. And that on a certain level as human beings we’re all connected. And we are all affected by the events in history, regardless of whether you are the perpetrator or the perpetrated."