Curatorial Statements

Click on the links below to read the full curatorial statements for each exhibit:

Palimpsests: Visual Idioms of Enslavement in the Nineteenth Century and Their Afterlives

Visualizing/Performing Blackness in the Afterlives of Slavery: A Caribbean Archive

Palimpsests: Visual Idioms of Enslavement in the Nineteenth Century and Their Afterlives

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz
Associate Professor of Latin American Literature
University of Chicago

Isabela Fraga
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center
Lecturer in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures
Stanford University

From the Latin palimpsestus and the Greek palímpsēsto, the word palimpsest in its original sense referred to a piece of parchment, usually made of animal skin, or to a tablet coated with wax. Their surfaces were repeatedly scraped to remove initial inscriptions so they could be reused. In antiquity, smoothing those surfaces might not have erased all previous marks, but over time, the term came to connote the failure of the attempts. Palimpsest, thus, conveys the notion that underneath what now exists, remain the traces of what once was, susceptible to resurgence—when artificial superimpositions fade—or to retrieval through deliberate excavation.

Organized around the notion of palimpsest, this collaborative digital exhibition unearths various modes in which nineteenth-century visual idioms of enslavement endure in present-day constructions of Blackness—as sites of policing, discipline, labor, desire, love, death, and/or pity, as well as the challenging responses to that legacy offered by contemporary artists across the Americas. Far from an organic metaphor of origin, influence, or filiation, this palimpsestic excavation brings to the surface the many layers that, through time, have anchored and sedimented certain modes of envisioning Black existence, calling attention to their historically dissimilar moments of articulation and their continued resignifications.

The restructuring of plantation economies in the context of industrial and liberal capitalist development, which took place across the slaveholding Americas during the nineteenth century, were organically related to profound shifts in the order of knowledge. These included a visual dimension that registered, for instance, in the newly minted disciplines of biology and anthropology, which were so central to the development of scientific racism and to its obsession with visualizing the Black body. Alongside emerged refined techniques of policing and surveillance, soon to be codified under the novel “science” of criminology, and its formulation of Blackness as lawlessness.

New visual technologies—such as lithography, photography, and the autonomization of landscape painting as an artistic genre—were fundamental to the articulation of ideas of race entangled with these new modes of cognition. Dale Tomich has called this period “the second slavery” to underline the impact that technological and commercial innovations associated with the Industrial Revolution—which made the regimes more efficient and brutal—as well as new ideas about the human, had on practices of enslavement. What now constituted the human was manifest in the political principles of liberty and equality as inalienable, yet unevenly granted human rights. In relation to this, visuality proved essential to the production of Blackness as a site of vulnerability, especially notable in the complex rhetoric—problematic, if well-intentioned—of the abolitionist movements and its sentimental affects.

The palimpsests constructed for this digital exhibition take some of these shifts as primordial scenarios, foregrounding the visual idioms that helped structure them. They highlight the violence and injury inflicted by policing, sexualization, poverty, and commodification; the emergence and continuation of the master-slave dialectic in racialized regimens of wage-labor; the construction and subversion of the plantation as a carcelary space; the co-constitution of whiteness through the construction of degrading views of Blackness; the questions of kinships and intimacy, perverted by slavery, but so fundamental for the sustenance of the subjected; and the modes through which, at every turn, life was creatively affirmed through the self-fashioning of the enslaved with whatever materials available. 

These palimpsests are not about a false supersession of the past. Rather, they highlight the endurance of what was and is underneath, of what persists, and insists, on breaking through the surface of the present, and which, for this reason, must be dismantled and denaturalized over and over again. The palimpsests, indeed, reveal the visual afterlives of slavery. To quote Brodwyn Fischer’s illuminating definition, afterlives can be conceived “as the set of structures [visual in our case], perceptions and processes that slavery created but abolition did not eliminate. [Visual] afterlives are created in slavery yet also structure freedom, thus working to re-enforce and re-create the essential dynamics of racialized bondage long after the institution itself is extinct.” These visual afterlives carry with them enduring affective and sensorial dimensions. In this sense, one of the aims of this exhibition is also to contribute to a better understanding of the ordering of feelings they trigger and the ideological and political values they underwrite.

Visualizing/Performing Blackness in the Afterlives of Slavery: A Caribbean Archive

Searching for the Afterlives
En busca de las vidas posteriores de la esclavitud

Danielle Roper
Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Latin American Literature
University of Chicago

Visualizing/Performing Blackness in the Afterlives of Slavery: A Caribbean Archive brings together black artists to critically reflect on the afterlives of slavery, its relationship to regimes of visuality, and its implications for contemporary constructions of blackness. The archive poses a set of questions: How does slavery condition modes of seeing or not seeing the Black body and how do its afterlives structure visuality today? Can one speak of a visual afterlife or visual afterlives of slavery? How does one map its spatial and temporal dimensions? Visualizing/Performing Blackness explores the tensions and imbrications of seeing and embodying blackness in the wake of the plantation. It seeks to discern how black artists make visible and trouble the contours of the afterlives of slavery. Open-ended and incomplete, this archive scans the lived quotidian of anti-black racism: It rummages through city ruins, open landscapes, domestic, and intimate spaces; it mines the repertoires of black culture, religious, and social life, and it looks for shared and diffuse grammars of representation in advertising, tourism, folklore, ritual, fairy tales, and children’s books.

In convening black artists from Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, U.S Virgin Islands, and Venezuela, I chose the Caribbean and its diasporas as a referent for these artistic meditations. As the formative theater of racial formation and racial capitalism, the Caribbean is the point of convergence for multiple histories and legacies of enslavement. Branded as paradise, the region lays bare the racial and sexual fantasies that have rendered black bodies disposable and always available for sex, for labor, and for consumption. In her ‘Continuum’ series, Joiri Minaya (Dominican Republic) highlights the ways the gendered and sexual imperatives placed on the black female body are embedded within colonial fantasies of the Caribbean landscape. Leasho Johnson’s (Jamaica) “In search for lost suns” draws from black ritual and folklore to reflect on what it means for black queer Caribbean men to bear the weight of these imperatives on their bodies. Luis Vásquez La Roche (Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela) offers a rumination on consumerism and the image and cultural import of successful Black athletes as structured by capitalist extraction of labor, sugar, and blood in his piece “But the real ones.” The Caribbean enables one to trace the reverberations of the slave past in the intimacies and economies of racial violence today.

This archive is a space of time travel for black artists. Fabio Melecio Palacios’s (Colombia) “Oficios de piel curtida” returns to the past to stage acts of visual insurgency. The characters in Las Nietas de Nonó’s (Puerto Rico) “Preparasyon ke mankai fiwa ba la guerra” travel through time to tackle the problem of environmental racism. Awilda Sterling Duprey (Puerto Rico) marks the present as a place for re-incarnation of the enslaved black soul in “Soy la reencarnación de un alma esclavizada…” These works seek to register the poly-temporalities of the afterlives of slavery, to disrupt the linear unfolding of the slave past, and to show us black bodies moving through time…

A counter-archive… This is a place to re-write the past. Some artists contest practices of unremembering, whitewashing, and erasure that deny the legacies of the slave past even as it unfolds in the present. La Vaughn Belle (U.S Virgin Islands) draws attention to Denmark’s forgotten history of slavery in the Danish West Indies in “The Little Match Girl” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and Carlos Martiel’s (Cuba) “Tercera raíz (Third Root)” points to a black body that is seen and not seen in Mexico. In “Cuerpo pátina – Cuerpo athanor,” Nemecio Berrio Guerrero (Colombia) maps the spatial dimensions of the afterlives by pointing to the racialization of public space in Cartagena, Colombia. These works present black bodies as hypervisible and invisible, displaced and out of place, fragmented, and overburdened. And yet Visualizing/Performing Blackness is intended to be a multivalent site of racial maneuver and black self-fashioning and a space of revenge fantasy, redress, black rage, and black memorialization. This archive proposes to study the afterlives as they manifest in and on black bodies.

Visualizaciones y performances de lo negro en el más allá de la esclavitud: un archivo caribeño reúne a artistes afrodescendientes para reflexionar críticamente sobre las vidas posteriores de la esclavitud, la relación de este legado con regímenes de visualidad y sus implicaciones para construcciones contemporáneas de lo negro. El archivo aborda una serie de preguntas: ¿Cómo condiciona la esclavitud los modos de ver o no ver el cuerpo negro y cómo su “más allá” estructura la visualidad en el mundo actual? ¿Tiene sentido hablar de continuidades y legados visuales? ¿Cómo podemos trazar sus dimensiones espaciales y temporales? “Visualizaciones y performances” explora las tensiones e imbricaciones envueltas en la representación y encarnación de lo negro en sociedades marcadas por la plantación. Busca discernir cómo les artistes negres visibilizan y alteran los contornos del “más allá” de la esclavitud. A la vez abierto e incompleto, este archivo rastrea la experiencia del racismo: hurga en las ruinas de ciudades, en paisajes extensos, en espacios domésticos e íntimos; extrae los repertorios de la cultura negra, la vida religiosa y social; y explora gramáticas de representación compartidas y difusas en la publicidad, el turismo, el folclor, los rituales, los cuentos de hadas y los libros infantiles.

Al invitar a artistes negres de Cuba, Colombia, República Dominicana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad y Tobago, Islas Vírgenes de EE. UU. y Venezuela, me enfoqué en el Caribe y sus diásporas como referente para estas meditaciones artísticas. El Caribe –escenario de procesos de racialización y capitalismo racial— es punto de convergencia de múltiples historias y legados de la esclavitud. Tildada de paraíso, la región pone en manifiesto las fantasías raciales y sexuales que han convertido los cuerpos negros en objetos desechables y siempre disponibles para el sexo, el trabajo y el consumo. En su serie “Continuum”, Joiri Minaya (República Dominicana) destaca las formas en que los imperativos sexuales y de género impuestos al cuerpo de la mujer negra están enlazados con las fantasías coloniales del paisaje caribeño. En “In search of lost suns,” Leasho Johnson (Jamaica) reflexiona sobre la carga que suponen las imposiciones de género y raza en los hombres negros cuir caribeños a partir del ritual y el folclor. Luis Vásquez La Roche (Trinidad y Tobago y Venezuela) medita sobre el consumismo y la importancia cultural del éxito del atleta negro en el contexto de las estructuras capitalistas de extracción de labor, azúcar y sangre en “But the real ones…” El Caribe nos invita a rastrear las reverberaciones del pasado esclavista en las intimidades y economías de la violencia racial que vivimos hoy.

Este archivo es un espacio donde artistes negres viajan a través del tiempo. “Oficios de piel curtida” de Fabio Melecio Palacios (Colombia) regresa al pasado para escenificar actos de insurgencia visual. Los personajes de “Preparasyon ke mankai fiwa ba la guerra” de Las Nietas de Nonó (Puerto Rico) se desplazan en el tiempo para abordar el problema del racismo ambiental. Awilda Sterling Duprey (Puerto Rico) marca el presente como un lugar de reencarnación del alma negra esclavizada en “Soy la reencarnación de un alma esclavizada”. Estas obras buscan registrar las politemporalidades del “más allá“ de la esclavitud e interrumpir el desarrollo lineal del pasado esclavista.

Un contra-archivo… Este es un lugar para reescribir el pasado. Algunes artistes interrogan las prácticas del olvido, del blanqueamiento y de la borradura, a la vez que rechazan los legados de un pasado esclavista que repercute en el presente. La Vaughn Belle (Islas Vírgenes de EE. UU.) llama la atención a la historia olvidada de la esclavitud en las Indias Occidentales danesas en “The Little Match Girl” y “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” En “Tercera raíz”, Carlos Martiel (Cuba) apunta a un cuerpo negro que se ve y no se ve en México. En “Cuerpo pátina – Cuerpo athanor”, ​​Nemecio Berrio Guerrero, director de Permanencias (Colombia), plasma las dimensiones espaciales del “más allá” al señalar la racialización del espacio público en Cartagena, Colombia. Estas obras presentan los cuerpos negros como hipervisibles e invisibles, desplazados y fuera de lugar, fragmentados y sobrecargados. Y, sin embargo, “Visualización/performances” pretende ser una zona multivalente de maniobras raciales y construcción de subjetividades negras, además de ser un espacio de fantasías de venganza, reparaciones, rabia y memorialización negra. Este archivo propone estudiar el “más allá” que se manifiesta en y sobre los cuerpos negros.

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