What Can We Learn From Art That Doesn’t Shy Away From the Past?

April 27, 2018
"ReSignifications" is on view at Harvard's Cooper Gallery through May 5. / Photo: Melissa Blackall

Anaïs Garvanian is a first-year MTS student at HDS focusing on the history of Christianity. She works as a gallery attendant at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art. In the essay below, she writes about her interpretation of the current exhibition ReSignifications, which deals with issues of race, migration, identity, and the use of art as a vehicle for starting difficult conversations.

This spring, the Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard is featuring the travelling exhibition ReSignifications from guest curator Awam Amkpa, Associate Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. 

Originally installed at NYU’s Villa la Pietra in Florence, Italy, ReSignifications features the work of African, European, and American artists placed “in conversation” with decorative European sculptures known as “Blackamoors”—smaller-than-life African figures clothed in jewels and gold and depicted in servile positions.

The idea for the exhibition started when Amkpa visited the Villa and could not understand or accept the presence of the ornate sculptural pieces—holding a tray, a lantern, contorting body to support a tabletop—on the peripheries of the lavishly furnished rooms throughout the house.

The Villa was gifted to NYU in 1994 by the Acton family, and came complete with the family’s extensive art collection. Reminiscent of the controversial lawn jockeys in the American South, Blackamoors have a complicated place in Italian history and feature commonly in nineteenth and twentieth-century upper-middle class homes.

The industry surrounding these objects flourishes to this day, with many buyers residing in the United States. Blackamoors have also appeared in recent fashion scandals involving British royalty and Dolce and Gabbana. At the Villa and elsewhere, the figures are treated largely as part of the decor, unacknowledged as representatives of real historical encounters of Europeans with other humans from the African continent.

Amkpa, a New Yorker originally from Nigeria, was brimming with questions about the pieces owned by NYU. What is the significance of these items? What does it mean for an American university to own them? How do we respond to their apparent racism? He and his colleagues invited artists and scholars to visit the Villa and create work responding to and “resignifying” the controversial statues and the history of objectification and exploitation that they represent. The resulting body of work creates a richly-layered voice that boldly addresses the objectifying statues head-on. 

Blackamoor statue.
Blackamoor statue. Venice, 18th Century. Courtesy of Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence. Photo: Melissa Blackall

ReSignifications at the Cooper Gallery features photographs from Senegalese artist Omar Viktor Diop’s self-portraiture series Project Diaspora, which restages famous paintings of successful Africans from various eras, challenging common assumptions of what the African traveler has contributed to the world, while proudly depicting Africans as both subjects of art and of history.

Diop’s photographs, along with Italian artist Alessandra Ragionieri’s semi-spherical world maps that show delicate footprints stemming from Africa, reference migration and cultural exchange. This includes everything from the free and the forced movement of peoples between continents throughout history to the influx of African migrants to Italy in recent years where, provided they arrive safely, the migrants will probably not see themselves mirrored in Italian art and culture except in the servile Blackamoors. The oceanic, deep-blue walls mark the dangerous passage between continents on which so many Africans have perished, but without which invaluable cultural interchange would not be possible.

Wanderers IV, III, V. 2013. Alessandra Ragionieri.
Alessandra Ragionieri. Wanderers IV, III, V. 2013. Courtesy of Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence. Photo: Melissa Blackall

Derrick Maddox’s You see sinner/I see saint shows a mug-shot mounted roughly on mixed wood and centered in, but unconnected to, a gilded frame. A Blackamoor looks on, holding a jewelry case, gown flowing as if rushing to attend to an order. Maddox’s piece brings the American situation to the fore—the initial 2015 exhibition in Florence coincided with protests against and instances of police brutality, both of which have continued.

African-American subjects are often found in dehumanizing forms of media; a mugshot in a news report, for instance. The embellished gold frame, near to the subject as if to claim association but not too near so as to claim responsibility, harkens back to colonial estates and bourgeois art collections. Works like Maddox’s remind us perspective matters; the weight of injustice can feel debilitating, or it can be the current that guides toward a more responsible present. 

Derrick Maddox “You see sinner/I see saint” 2016. Courtesy of Robert Holmes. Blackamoor statue. Venice, 18th Century.
Derrick Maddox “You see sinner/I see saint” 2016. Courtesy of Robert Holmes. Blackamoor statue. Venice, 18th Century. Courtesy of Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence. Photo: Melissa Blackall

Resignifications at the Cooper Gallery provides us with a glimpse of the potential of critically engaging history: the sculptures are placed in the spotlight, where their offensive and attractive qualities can be discussed in turn by all who wish to look. The artists inspire us not to avoid difficult chapters, but rather to approach them and reclaim them as potential sites of transformative empowerment.

“My hope is that projects like this will open up dialogue and conversation even when they are difficult and awkward,” Ampka says. “Art becomes the vehicle for doing that, and it builds a broader community of people who are making meanings of history through their art.”

Perhaps this model of critical examination, introspection, creation, and communal display and discussion could be a way of approaching other chapters of history as well.

by Anaïs Garvanian, HDS correspondent