This article is part of our dedicated Museums section on how art institutions reach new artists and attract new audiences.
Each major milestone provides the opportunity for much-needed historical reflection, if not reconsideration. And this year, the 160th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation comes at a particularly thought-provoking moment for a nation still grappling with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and decades of entrenched inequality.
Into this dynamic and racially charged atmosphere comes “Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation,” which is on display at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. “Emancipation” is rooted in an intriguing premise: what if an iconic work of art—in this case, sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward’s “The Freedman” of 1863—is so historically fraught that it requires an entirely new cultural and aesthetic interpretation for today’s era?
Initially modeled in plaster and later cast in bronze, “The Freedman” depicts a formerly enslaved man clad in a loincloth, his left arm in shackles, his right breaking free from the shackles of slavery. His gaze is executed with both clarity and hesitation – simultaneously looking forward to the promise of freedom while grappling with the uncertainty (if not disbelief) of emancipation itself.
The image, considered progressive for its time, can be found at the Carter along with other notable American cultural institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; (Eight copies were made from the original plaster mold of the statue). Completed the same year that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “The Freedman” is one of the most high-profile examples of Abolition-era art—a canon that captures both the war to end slavery and the conflicting jubilation that accompanied his downfall to great fame.
Increasingly debated by scholars for its place within this realm, “The Freedman,” Nevertheless, remains “an ambitious work and one of the first of its era to show a man freeing himself from slavery,” said Maggie Adler, curator of the Amon Carter Museum, who curated “Emancipation” in collaboration with Maurita Poole, director of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University. Frighteningly powerful, even at only 16 inches high, the piece “wasn’t so much in need of repair,” Mrs. Adler continued, “but an ‘unwrapping’ for the present moment.” And that is exactly what “Emancipation” has achieved.
Just before the pandemic, Ms. Adler and Ms. Poole started with seven artists – mostly young, all of color – to create new artworks that explored the huge implications of “The Freedman,” both from the era in which it was designed to the present day. On the one hand, Ward has clearly given his subject agency; “‘The Freedman’ is a commentary on the idea of black people’s own role in emancipating themselves,” Ms Poole said of the statue’s numerous readings.
But the play also “plays directly into many of the false myths surrounding abolitionism and emancipation,” added Caitlin Meehye Beach, assistant professor of art history and associate faculty in African and African American Studies at Fordham University. “Especially the idea that freedom was something bequeathed” to the enslaved people, acceded to by whites as an act of benevolence, rather than a fundamental part of human existence.
Such sentiments effectively erase black voices from the emancipation process, Ms Beach said, and were a critical factor in the 2020 campaign to remove the “Freedman’s Memorial” statue. from Park Square in Boston. Completed in 1876, the piece depicts Lincoln standing over a kneeling and formerly enslaved man, seemingly granting him his freedom; a copy of the work remains on display in Washington, D.C. Another version of that piece led to a parallel exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which had invited modern artists to respond to that image.
On view until 9 July, “Emancipation” has created a new body of work that speaks to these historical mishaps while expanding contemporary discourse around representations of race, power and privilege. The artists – Sadie Barnette, Alfred Conteh, Maya Freelon, Hugh Hayden, Letitia Huckaby, Jeffrey Meris and Sable Elyse Smith – represent diversity of gender, geography, materials and styles. Many had never been involved with ‘The Freedman’ before or were even aware of the complex discourses surrounding abolitionist-era artwork.
“The only clue we gave them,” Ms Poole said, “was to focus on a theme that has to do with emancipation and liberation – or the lack thereof.”
Conceived before the pandemic, the exhibition came to life during the dark days of the early Covid lockdowns, which presented unique challenges and opportunities. Zoom meetings replaced the face-to-face meetings that typically bond creators with curators, while artists who couldn’t visit “The Freedman” at the Amon Carter opted to view it in institutions closer to home. Most of the artists met for the first time during the opening of ‘Emancipation’ in March.
“We were particularly surprised by the convergence of the resulting ideas, along with the freedom of expression that happened independently,” Ms Adler said.
The pandemic, said Ms. Barnette, based in Oakland, California, only reinforced the solitary nature of her studio process. Ms. Barnette’s work – “FBI Drawings: Do Not Destroy, 2021” – reuses parts of an FBI surveillance file compiled on her own father, a former Black Panther. Her piece features pages from the file embellished with, as well as illuminated by, crystals, roses, and the faces of Hello Kitty cartoons.
The choice to focus on her father’s experience “really expresses the fact that American history is family history, is black history,” Ms. Barnette said. “It’s our uncles and fathers and aunts and parents who made it possible – not some archetypal hero.”
Based in Fort Worth, Ms. Huckaby has also mined her own family’s lore for her numerous “Emancipation” pieces, which originated in her two recent series, 2021’s “A Tale of Two Greenwoods” and “Bitter Waters Sweet ‘ from last year . Works in both series use photography, bits of cotton, embellished flowers, and precisely positioned frames to explore the communities of liberated black people in Tulsa, Okla., and “Africatown” in Mobile, Ala. – revisiting the former destroyed by white mobs in 1921, the latter still standing.
Born in Haiti and raised in the Bahamas and now based in New York, Mr. Meris faced a painful episode of his own life – a New York City Transit police arrest for jumping a subway turnstile after his MetroCard could not be activated – to “The Block is Hot: The Resurrection” for “Emancipation.” Originally part of Mr. Meris’ “Now You See Me; Now You Don’t” series, the piece consists of a plaster body placed on a rectangular steel base and held up by pulleys, ropes and belts — balanced by a concrete block.
The piece of plaster moves back and forth, releasing a cloud of fine dust that accumulates underneath. “To me, this expresses the grinding, the pulverization in the midst of the harshness of 400 years of sanctioned oppression in this country,” Mr Meris said. “I wanted to make this violence visible.”
New York-based Mr. Hayden also takes a politically sharp tone in explaining “American Dream,” his piece for “Emancipation.” The work is the most literal interpretation of Ward’s 160-year-old original – a 3D-printed plastic reproduction of “The Freedman” featuring a black man with a similar pose and face looking up as he rises from a wide Adirondack chair.
Mr. Hayden speaks of the figure with tones of hope and progress. The chair is a symbol, Mr. Hayden said, “of the American Dream, and a level of personal choice that actively looks beyond possessions,” so prominent in Ward’s original. “Because it was important to me that we go beyond the visualizations of slavery and just show someone who is free,” added Mr. Hayden, “even if he’s not quite there yet.”