What happens when you put colonialism and whiteness on critical display in the colonial exhibition space? Thinking with Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, this question drives my curatorial approach to permanent collections in encyclopedic art museums. Although my attempts to fully realize this project as the associate curator of American art at Newfields caused me a lot of harm, I’ve always envisioned it as a reinstallation framework that any encyclopedic institution could apply to its collections. Over the past three years, I’ve analyzed several museum collections and what follows are the questions I pose and some objects I’ve chosen as answers.
I typically begin by asking: Is there a vital work in the collection that can anchor a reinstall about colonialism? At Newfields, it was Tim Hawkinson’s “Möbius Ship.” Its reference to the mathematical properties of the Möbius strip — a continuous loop that has only one surface — is a perfect metaphor for colonialism. A Möbius strip is not a surface of only one exact size and shape; it shrinks and expands, but as it compresses it forms an infinite loop. In essence, a Möbius strip exists forever. Similarly, colonialism has been an ever-changing, continuous loop that has governed global society since the 15th century. I feel like that’s the story museums need to tell, and only permanent collections can. It is not simply the stories of objects and artists but the story of the loop itself — the very loop institutions concretize and uphold.
Next, I look for portraits of actual colonizers and name them as such. Most encyclopedic art museums have hordes of colonial-era and antebellum portraits of wealthy white sitters. Because the global economy during both eras was fueled by the slave market and all the commodities that slave labor produced, the majority of these subjects were either colonizers themselves or people who garnered their wealth from colonizing activities.
Newfields owned “The Prince of Nassau” and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Vice Admiral Edward Hughes. Well known as one of LeBrun’s earliest successes in French portraiture, Karl Heinrich von Nassau-Siegen was a French-born colonizer who Catherine II described as “a crazy person.” From 1766-69 he traveled with Louis Antoine de Bougainville (another French colonizer) to escape his creditors. Vice Admiral Edward Hughes was celebrated as the most successful British officer to defeat the Spanish for their colonies in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. For European sitters with military backgrounds, being an active participant in the colonization of BIPOC nations was the criterion that made them worthy of a portrait.
Additionally, the global economy was policed by European and American navies that constantly reconfigured the lines of colonialism along the waterways. So, scenes like “The Battle of Trafalgar” by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, often overlooked maritime paintings by artists like Thomas Whitcomb or Robert Salmon, and ship model collections like the MFA Boston’s can be used to further illustrate this history.
Thinking with W. E. B. DuBois’s essay The Souls of White Folk, I love to unpack William Wetmore Story’s work to reveal how he participated in the ways that whiteness was visually constructed atop Black women’s bodies. “Libyan Sibyl” is particularly suitable for this because his conceptualization of the sculpture grew from his relationship with famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe and their shared racialized misunderstandings of Black women, particularly Sojourner Truth.
Using Du Bois’s quote, “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?,” I created an installation that places Libyan Sibyl in direct conversation with Stowe’s 1863 Atlantic article “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl,” along with Truth’s self-representations, Story’s own comments about the sculpture, and other contemporaneous images of Black women. Despite Truth’s self-expression as an autonomous woman, and international popularity as an abolitionist and feminist leader, Stowe’s essay explains how her (racist) literary depiction of Truth directly influenced Story’s sculpture and what he perceived as Africa’s inherent demise. Story also emphasized this belief in a letter to his friend Charles Eliot Norton. But Africa’s “terrible fate” was far from a natural occurrence. Literally, the continent’s ruin was orchestrated through a series of highly strategized colonialist campaigns that began as early as the 16th century, specifically to augment various European empires, as well as the American empire.
Contrary to Stowe’s and Story’s racist imaginations, Black women did not see their own demise on the eve of the Civil War; rather, they saw the truth of who they were as people and the truth of white supremacist narratives like Story’s and Stowe’s. How do I know this? Because there are thousands of images of unidentified Black women in archives across the US that demonstrate just how highly Black women thought of themselves and their families throughout the 1860s and 1870s. So, I encourage Americanists and the general public alike to look again.
Installs like this work better digitally because they dispel shipping concerns (for instance, neoclassical works are super heavy) and concerns about light exposure. But could you imagine engaging this through an app or a digital interactive when you go to the Smithsonian, the Met, or the High museums to view Story’s Libyan Sibyl? Could you imagine an American neoclassical sculpture gallery that actually engaged this history through the scholarship of Jennifer Morgan, Deb Willis, Barbara Krauthamer, Nell Painter, Kirsten Buick, Charmaine Nelson, and Lisa Farrington? How much more nuanced and relevant would the narrative of American neoclassical sculpture be if it were told from the positionality of Black women? Edmonia Lewis may have been the only Black female neoclassical sculptor, but she was not the only Black woman that American neoclassical sculpture concerned.
Lastly, this install would require art museums to build inter-institutional relationships with local archives and libraries to borrow the material culture needed to properly locate an artist among more than just their visual art contemporaries; this would allow for more interesting and responsible contextualization of historical artworks that we know are problematic. Story’s claim that the Libyan Sibyl was his “anti-slavery sermon in stone” does not preclude the fact that it was also unequivocally anti-black.
This is the third in a series of five online exhibitions presented by curators selected as Hyperallergic fellows in the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators. As part of their fellowship, each curator was asked to consider an article format as an exhibition that presents a body of work while offering some insight into their curatorial process.