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Overlooked African-American Explorer at Center of Bahamian Venice Pavilion

by Allison Meier on June 12, 2013

Matthew Henson in 1910 (via Wikimedia) and Tavares Strachan on his North Pole journey (via the artist)

Matthew Henson in 1910 (via Wikimedia) and Tavares Strachan on his North Pole journey (via the artist)

The Bahamas is making its Venice Biennale debut this year with a look at one of history’s overlooked Arctic explorers, a man who may have even been the first to set foot on the North Pole.

Nassau-born, New York-based artist Tavares Strachan’s Polar Eclipse installation in the Arsenale for the Bahamas National Pavilion explores the story of Matthew Henson, an African-American who joined Robert Peary on several of his attempts to be the first at the North Pole, including the successful journey in 1909. (It has to be pointed out, though, that there’s some debate over whether Peary’s team was first or if Frederick Cook beat them to it, but that’s a controversy left to history for this post.) By the time the team of six, including Peary, Henson, and four Inuit, arrived at the Pole, Peary could no longer walk and rode in a sled — he’d lost numerous toes and his feet were in bad shape even at the beginning of the 1909 expedition. By some reports, Henson actually walked ahead and crossed the North Pole with his footsteps before realizing he’d overshot and returned for Peary and to plant the flag.

Tavares Strachan "Polar Eclipse" installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz &Co.)

Tavares Strachan’s Polar Eclipse installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz & Co.)

Yet despite being part of this intrepid expedition, and perhaps even the first person to stand at the northern tip of our world, Henson’s achievement went largely unrecognized, largely because he was black. It wasn’t until 1944 that he was finally honored by Congress with a duplicate of Peary’s medal, and for decades after his exploring years he worked quietly as a clerk in the federal customs house in New York.

Tavares Strachan "Polar Eclipse" installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz &Co.)

Tavares Strachan “Polar Eclipse” installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz & Co.)

For Polar Eclipse, Strachan’s recreation of the 1909 expedition is presented in a 14-hour-long video, surrounded by sculpture, two-dimensional work, and two blocks of ice preserved behind glass. One is from the Arctic, the other a recreation of its frozen characteristics. As he stated on the Venice Bahamas site: “I’m fascinated by the idea of being in two or more places at once, and exploring difference that way. The way that the Venice Biennale, historically and now, deploys the idea of ‘difference’ as cultural tourism is an interesting problem to work with.”

Tavares Strachan "Polar Eclipse" installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz &Co.)

Tavares Strachan “Polar Eclipse” installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz & Co.)

His previous projects have also focused on this idea of the human body sustaining conditions that are inhospitable, such as with the artist going to Star City in Russia to train as a cosmonaut. Adding to this narrative of human achievement and the accomplishing of the impossible, he also built rockets from resources only found naturally in the Bahamas with the Bahamian Aerospace and Sea Exploration Center, which he launched 20 miles up into the stratosphere. However for Venice, he’s focused on not just moving beyond human limits in nature, but history as well.

Tavares Strachan "Polar Eclipse" installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz &Co.)

Tavares Strachan “Polar Eclipse” installation at the Venice Biennale (Photograph by Tom Powel, courtesy Fitz & Co.)

Tavares Strachan: Polar Eclipse is on view at the Bahamas National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale through November 24.

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