One of the many 18th-century Harlequin objects in the collection of the Gardiner Museum, this small hard-paste porcelain figurine in the center by Wenzel Neu and from the Kloster-Veilsdorf Porcelain Factory in Germany, c. 1764–65, is accompanied by a small sign that asks, “Is Harlequin in blackface?” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s a curious collection of 18th-century porcelain figurines displayed on the second floor of the Gardiner Museum. Set amidst an impressive display of European ceramic table wear and figurines, this small assortment of Harlequin sculptures don dark masks that stand out for contemporary audiences. One of the colorful sculptures is by Wenzel Neu and hails from the Kloster-Veilsdorf Porcelain Factory in Germany, c. 1764–65, and beside it is a sign that asks, “Is Harlequin in blackface?”

In this episode, we talk to Professor Cheryl Thompson, anti-racist educator Rania El Mugammar, and the Gardiner’s Chief Curator Sequoia Miller about this figurine that portrays a character from the Commedia dell’Arte that was a precursor to the more violently racialized images of blackface in 19th and 20th-century minstrel shows. We explore the long history of blackface in Canada, and how one museum is adapting to tell the stories that its collection provokes with contemporary audiences.

A special thanks to musician SunSon for providing the music to this special series, which is produced by Hyperallergic in conjuncture with the Gardiner Museum, and you can check out his website for more information.

This and more in the current episode of our weekly Art Movements podcast.

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Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.