While substantially reprising Fred Wilson’s contribution to last year’s Istanbul Biennale, his current exhibition, Afro Kismet at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, continues an investigation that began with the artist’s U.S. pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. He used that earlier occasion to examine representations of Africans in early modern art from Italy and other parts of Europe. He also displayed images of blackness stereotyped and caricatured in less rarefied and more contemporary objects he found in Venice, such as candle holders and cookies. For nearly three decades, Wilson has made, appropriated, and curated cultural products in order to expose racism and erasure at the core of social relations, whether in the United States, Europe, or — with Afro Kismet — the perimeters of the Middle East.
Extending his work in Venice and shifting his geographical focus, Wilson exhibited paintings at the Istanbul Biennale, selected from the city’s Pera Museum, that included individuals of African descent amid larger group scenes. Their images were reproduced in cropped isolation next to the paintings as a way of spotlighting these frequently ignored figures. At Pace, a new set of European paintings are in play — The Musician (1895) by Orientalist painter Rudolf Ernst, is one example — although this time no highlighting is necessary because they are individual portraits by Europeans of Africans in North African and Middle Eastern settings. They are also put in dialogue with, for instance, an African mask or self-reflective lines from James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, partly written while he was living as an expatriate in Istanbul.
The complicated link between representation — specifically, the representation of blackness as a concept and racial category — and property is stitched together throughout Afro Kismet, and slavery is the fundamental form this relationship takes. The African presence in Venice and Istanbul that Wilson has been exploring is predicated on the slave trade. (Shakespeare’s Othello also haunts Wilson’s projects in both cities, and he makes a few cameos in Afro Kismet.) Discussions of the transatlantic slave trade frequently fail to mention that nearly as many Africans — ten million or more — were taken to the Middle East and South Asia by Arab slave traders. The Ottoman Empire abolished the slave trade decades after England and the United States. This overlooked population of Afro Anatolians is a primary subject of Afro Kismet.
In his groundbreaking and landmark “Mining the Museum” exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, Wilson famously reinserted a previously suppressed history of African American slavery by pulling from that institution’s archival storage objects such as slave manacles and putting them on display. For the 2003 Venice Biennale, he collected blackamoor statues — the European version of lawn jockeys in the United States — from around Venice and put them in the U.S. pavilion. In Istanbul and at Pace, he extends this gaze to Arab culture, most dramatically with Mother Africa (2017) and Black is Beautiful (2017), both large (9 by 19-foot) freestanding walls consisting of Iznik tiles that Wilson produced collaboratively with a workshop in Turkey.
During the early modern period, Iznik ceramics were among the most valued in the world, although the tradition has only recently been revived. In yet another example of symbolic color in an exhibition full of them, Wilson had the tiles painted black and deep purple (as opposed to a more traditional white and blue) so as to surface a black presence — and population — in Ottoman and Turkish society. He also had the phrases “Mother Africa” and “Black is Beautiful” written on them in enlarged Arabic calligraphy in striking blue, a color that directly connected East and West in early modern painting, as the pigment came from lapis lazuli mined in what is now Afghanistan and made available to artists of the time via Venice’s busy mercantile ports. Wilson’s explicit reference to Africa further expands this global network through which both cultural influences and African bodies were transmitted.
Wilson also bought old prints in Istanbul that include individuals of African descent situated among groups of Ottomans and Europeans. He then fitted a sheet of white translucent vellum over each print, with a small cutout that reveals the black figure exclusively. The prints are displayed in clusters of five and six, on the wall and in vitrines, the latter scattered with cowry shells — a form of currency Europeans used to buy slaves in West Africa. Also scattered throughout Afro Kismet are African sculptures and artifacts — for instance, a Yoruba Gelede mask, a Senufo seated figure, a Sherbo spirit head — most in Plexiglas cases. Wilson has added text to each of these installations, such as Othello’s description of being sold into slavery affixed in vinyl lettering to the wall behind the Senufo figure: “Of being taken by the insolent foe. / And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence. / And portance in my traveler’s history” (Of Being Taken, 2018).
Throughout Afro Kismet, Wilson embeds his emphasis on blackness within a wide-ranging set of social and economic interactions, perhaps most literally with two world globes on which he has painted dark swooshes, obscuring the boundaries of countries and continents, and capturing the whirlwind that was globalization during the early modern period — for better or for worse: in the former case, for wealthy merchants (and artists) in Venice and Antwerp; in the latter, for parts of Africa. One of these globes, covered in black tassels (“Untitled (Zadib, Sokoto, Tokolor, Samori, Veneto, Zanzibar, Dhaka, Macao),” 2011), is held aloft on a stick by a turbaned blackamoor figure. The other, “Trade Winds” (2017), rests on a pedestal at the back of the gallery, serving as another of Wilson’s career-long appropriations of everyday objects that aims to convey a much larger history, one usually forgotten, suppressed, or untold.
Afro Kismet additionally features Wilson’s work with Murano glassmakers in Venice, which, like Iznik ceramics, is a prestigious, 500-year-old tradition. These are gorgeous objects: sculptural mirrors with a deeply opaque yet ultra-glossy black surface and enormous black chandeliers combining Venetian and Ottoman decorative elements. (One exception is “A Moth of Peace,” 2018, a gleaming, white chandelier with a half-dozen component parts cast in black scattered within it.) The mirrors and “A Moth of Peace” are given their own room at Pace, along with three wall installations of sensuous, black, blown-glass teardrops or raindrops or oil drops or sperm cells (more are in the main room).
There are very good reasons to be suspicious of beauty because of the cultural norms — and oppressions — it seeks to impose, but Wilson aims to use it subversively, as a means whereby viewers might (re-) consider race. Wilson’s curatorial approach to his own art production collapses ethnography, commerce, and culture in a way that globalization did in the early modern period and in a way that it does even more relentlessly now.
Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet continues at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th St., Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 17.