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Sometimes it’s good to focus on the small victories. I found the exhibition The Fabric of Emancipation, an exhibition curated by Harlem Needle Arts in collaboration with the Morris-Jumel Mansion, mostly disappointing, because the majority of the work in the show evinces an amateurish understanding of the relation of form to content. But the conceit of the exhibition is strong. The curators sought to provoke a conversation about the relation — or disjunction — between the upper-class history of the mansion and its current context in the largely working-class and African American district of Harlem. The idea was to use the media of quilt, embroidery, clothing, and fiber to interject into the spaces and preexisting dioramas the forgotten histories and artistic traditions of black folks, thus expanding the historical record. To understand how this would work, you need to know a little about the mansion’s origins.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion was built in 1765 by a British colonel, Roger Morris, and later ended up in the possession of a merchant, Stephen Jumel, who died and left behind a widow, Eliza Bowen. She remarried the infamous Aaron Burr and subsequently divorced him, dying in the house in 1865. In 1904, the City of New York bought the mansion and turned it — the oldest remaining house in Manhattan — into a museum. Today, in fact, the house does feel old, not just historic: it has a stuffy, stagnant atmosphere, exacerbated by creaking floorboards, bad lighting, and walls in need of a fresh coat of paint. It is an astute idea to freshen up the dioramas and object displays representing domestic life for the 18th–19th century elite by bringing in artists of color to reinvigorate these sagging rooms — which is what the institution has been doing for the past six years, according to museum assistant Trish Mayo. Each summer show, she says, includes work by artists from the community.
Unfortunately, much of the work in The Fabric of Emancipation offers obvious and simplistic conclusions and bungles them with clumsy visuals. Consider “Conversations in Cotton: The Fabric of our Lives” (2016), for which Laura Gadson took black and white T-shirts, cut them in half down their middles, and combined opposite halves with contrasting information. So, in one instance, the fates of Amadou Diallo — a black man, unarmed, shot to death in a fusillade of 41 bullets in 1999 — and Dylann Roof — a white man, murdered nine black people, taken safely to jail in a bulletproof vest — are placed side by side. To use such obvious symbols as black and white T-shirts to represent the experiences of the corresponding races, and to do so with relatively crude graphics, is not especially insightful, challenging, or visually interesting. Many of the quilts in the show similarly fall flat, trying to depict their subjects too literally and ending up with worn-out platitudes.
The best work is the costuming, such as Sara Bunn’s “A Day in the Life of Seneca Village: We Wore More than Shackles” (2016). The clothing here is amazingly inventive: women’s shirts with enormously puffy sleeves, crinoline skirts made with striking orange and brown Kente cloth patterns, even a cummerbund of similarly colorful fabric. It illustrates the key historical fact that Africans and African Americans who lived in the 18th- and 19th-century American colonies were not all slaves decked in rags, but also people of means who took pride in their fashion as indicative of their social standing. The collaboration between LaShawnda Crowe Storm and M. Eliza Hamilton Abegunde, “Be/Coming” (2009), is another standout; the piece is wild with the energy of a masquerade that’s not about hiding, but rather about wanting to be seen.
The small victory here is that the Morris-Jumel Mansion has found a way to make its collection more relevant to its surrounding community. Even though the quality of the work is mixed, the institution’s programming strategy makes it not only a reflection of the past, but a responsive and self-aware museum of the present.
The Fabric of Emancipation continues at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (65 Jumel Terrace, Harlem, Manhattan) through October 3.