Visual Culture of Slavery

Today’s New York Times includes an editorial calling for a Slavery Monument.  Seems overdue to me.  Is there any space left on the National Mall?  In this moment of deep racial and cross-religious tensions and anxiety, I like the way visual culture invites us to reflect and reframe without panic and distraught emotion.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, its glorious renovation completed, now has an concise and engaging exhibition Sound and Sense: Poetic Musings in American Art.  Every object can be inhaled slowly and thoroughly.

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I was taken with the first Clementine Hunter painting I had seen in years.  Hunter, born just after the Civil War to a sharecropper family, began working the fields at age 12 on a Louisiana plantation called Melrose.  As an older woman, she moved indoors to work as a cook, and that’s when she found discarded art supplies left behind by a plantation visitor.  An artist was born.  “Cotton Picking” from around 1940 tells a direct, unexaggerated story of the poor, black life Hunter knew so well.

2015-12-05 13.23.59Here’s a close up of how she created the cotton balls–a thumb smudge of paint, repeated over and over.  Or maybe she dolloped a blob from the paint tube.  The texture energizes the surface, contrasting the rest of the flatly-depicted scene.

Hunter’s paintings caught the eye of local ‘white ladies’ who paid Hunter a pittance for the works, then turned around and sold them to ‘folk art’ collectors for a healthy upcharge.  Of course, Hunter never received any of these profits.  Because collectors bought the paintings, some have landed in museums like the Wadsworth.

I first met Hunter’s works while visiting Melrose, which markets her, her story, and her paintings as a major tourist draw.  In 1955, when she was 68, Hunter painted her African House Murals on plywood.  The murals were then hung in the African House at the plantation.  She still very much lives through these visceral works.  Go see them if you can.

At the Wadsworth, I also was captivated by William Howard’s desk.  He built the desk during the Mississippi Reconstruction, about 1870, from inexpensive yellow pine and salvaged crate wood.  He hand-carved the desk front, honoring the tools associated with his own history as a slave.

You can probably make out the pistol at center and the pointing hand, as if showing how the work got done–under duress.  You can also see the tableware he created, first for plantation owners, then for freed African Americans.

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As with Hunter, Howard must have been self-taught, leaving us with this top-heavy work desk that’s completely distinctive.  The desk, just like Hunter’s painting, tells a story of slavery and freedom, through a quirky creativity and vision.

What a good reminder for us today, to think beyond the fear and foolishness, to rise above the pain of our histories and present, and to actively work to create a world of new possibilities.

One thought on “Visual Culture of Slavery

  1. I hd never heard of etiher of these people, but oh wow. I’m so glad you did a close up of the cotton, since I would have missed the “thumb print.” And that desk, geez, amazing!

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