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Slavery Images 200 Years After Slave Trade's Abolition

February 20, 2007 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When it comes to raising the ghosts of slavery, few artists are as well known or adept as MacArthur “genius” award-winner Fred Wilson. At a major international conference marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, Wilson will deliver the keynote address and Leon Forrest Lecture.

An artist whose provocative works have juxtaposed metal slave shackles with silver tea services and finely carved period furniture with rough hewn whipping posts, Wilson will join other leading artists, art historians, museum curators and scholars of slavery at Northwestern University for “Out of Sight: New World Slavery and the Visual Imagination” on Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3.

“The conference will explore the ways that visual representations of slavery and -- often more important - the absence of these images influence our understanding and memory of slavery,” says Northwestern art historian Huey Copeland. It will take place at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle, Evanston campus, beginning at 9:30 a.m. both Friday and Saturday. Wilson will speak Friday at 4:30 p.m. An online multi-media artwork about Chicago's slavery disclosure ordinance will officially debut at the conference.

“The slavery experience in the modern Americas is often described as 'unrepresentable,' a kind of a visual blind spot in the memory of the African Diaspora,” says Copeland, assistant professor of art history at Northwestern. Plumbing museum basements, Wilson and other artists have brought to public view and consciousness cultural artifacts of slavery previously never exhibited.

“It's essential to discuss whether slavery must be condemned to the realm of the 'unrepresentable' as some scholars argue and to understand what we lose if it is,” says Copeland, conference co-organizer with Krista Thompson, also assistant professor of art history at Northwestern.

Exploring slavery and its representations head-on are artists Mendi+Keith Obadike whose online work, “Big House/Disclosure,” will officially launch at the conference. The digital artwork examines issues surrounding and reaction to Chicago's Slavery-Era Disclosure Ordinance. The ordinance requires that institutions doing business with Chicago disclose whether they have profited from slavery.

“Big House” was made in collaboration with Northwestern students, staff and faculty. Conceputal artists Mendi+Keith -- who in 2001 put up Keith's blackness for sale on e-Bay in a work about ownership and blackness -- will take part in a Saturday (March 3) conference session on slavery in popular culture and contemporary art.  That session begins at 2 p.m.

Among conference participants are some of the most important artists and scholars today exploring slavery's presence and absence in art.

They include Marcus Wood, author of the groundbreaking book “Blind Memory;” artist Christopher Cozier, whose work rejects stereotypical sunny images of his native Trinidad to examine its historic role in the slave trade; Hank Willis Thomas, whose photographs in “Branded” included digitally added, scar-like Nike logos to the head, chest and other body parts of a black male model; and Saidya V. Hartman, author of “Scenes of Subjection” and “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.”

“Out of Sight” is sponsored by Northwestern's Center for African American History; the Dean's Office of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; the departments of African American Studies, Art History, Art Theory and Practice; Block Museum of Art; Program of African Studies; Provost's Office; Alumnae Association; and Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, generously supported by a Mellon Foundation grant. Wayne Modest, director of museums at the Institute of Jamaica, also helped organize the conference.

For more information or a conference schedule, call (847) 491-7077 or visit the conference Web site at http://www.wcas.northwestern.edu/arthistory/outofsight/.

Topics: Campus Life