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In 1850, on a plantation in South Carolina, Harvard University zoologist Louis Agassiz created nude daguerreotypes of seven enslaved individuals without their consent. He was attempting to gather evidence to prove his racist theory of “polygenesis,” which posited that Black and white people came from separate species.1 In 2010, Tamara Lanier, a descendant of two of the photographed individuals, named Renty and Delia, learned that Harvard University’s Peabody Museum retained the daguerreotypes of her relatives, and in 2019, she initiated a lawsuit against the university for their return to the family line. Lanier held that Harvard should return the daguerreotypes of her ancestors to her because they had been obtained through unclean hands. This wasn’t a farfetched argument because it’s arguable that the images constituted the fruits of robbery. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected Lanier’s claim to the property in 2022 but did allow her to sue the school for negligent and reckless infliction of emotional distress, in large part because of the “horrific” conditions that surrounded the daguerreotypes’ production.2
The outcome of Lanier v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, and the story behind Lanier’s struggle, expose a devastating history often ignored by mainstream society until the racial revolution that began in the 2010s and crested during the protests of 2020. Like Lanier, the curators of LACMA’s remarkable exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories recognize the importance of imagery and artifacts in telling the story of Black enslavement. Moreover, the show arrives at a time when conversations around these issues are becoming more mainstream, and as activists, artists, and curators respond to this history through aesthetic and political reclamations.
Displaying artworks and objects that address slavery and its influences in Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe, Afro-Atlantic Histories spans from the seventeenth century to the present. The exhibition comes to Los Angeles by way of São Paulo, Brazil—the show first appeared in 2018 as Histórias Afro-Atlânticas at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP) and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake, before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. At LACMA, it has been adapted to the Resnick Pavilion by curators Rita Gonzalez and José Luis Blondet, who introduced works from their collection, including pieces L.A.-based artists Betye Saar, Maya Stovall, and Todd Gray, to the more than 100 pieces in the original exhibition. “The show is about slavery throughout the Americas, not just in the U.S., as we typically talk about it here, in this country,” Gonzalez told me at the press preview.
The curators divided the show into sections, such as Maps and Margins, which graphs the forced passage of enslaved people from their homes to their bondage. Cartographies reveal sites of embarkation and disembarkation in North and South America (Chesapeake and Bahia) and Africa (Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Gold Coast). In a painting by Kerry James Marshall, Voyager (1992), a woman stands at the prow of a slave ship. Silvery lines limn her onyx features, revealing a high, wide brow and a firmly set mouth. The ship’s name is Wanderer, a reference to the penultimate schooner to bring slaves to the United States, trafficking 409 survivors to Georgia in November 1858. This scene is fraught, but Marshall is not interested in flattening or objectifying his subjects. Fresh insights emerge also from works such as Saar’s I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break (1998). The installation consists of a vintage ironing board, a flat iron attached to a shackle and chain, and a bedsheet embroidered with the initials KKK and hanging on a line with clothespins. On the ironing board, Saar printed a diagram of the Brookes, a notorious eighteenth-century British slave ship. The title gives us access to the mantras of Black women who have resisted oppression throughout the centuries.
Another room hosts work under the category of Enslavement and Emancipation, which exposes the horrors of captivity. Arthur Jafa’s sculpture Ex-Slave Gordon (2017) replicates an infamous 1863 carte-de-visite portrait of an enslaved man. A postcard widely circulated by abolitionists, the image is now known as The Scourged Back. Jafa made his version of gunmetal-colored vacuum-formed plastic, which topographically displays the scars and welts that cascaded down Gordon’s spine, offering an anatomical model of the man’s anguish. Nearby, Nona Faustine’s From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth (2013) also brings home how U.S. enslavement assailed the physicality and worth of Black people: In the photograph, Faustine stands nude (but for a pair of white shoes) on Wall Street, the stage of the New York City’s first official human market.
The Black American artist Imani Jacqueline Brown has observed that mass media often focuses on the torment of Black people, creating “an overflowing archive of fetishized suffering.”3 Indeed, in different hands, Afro-Atlantic Histories could have grown into a livid spectacle. Avoiding the trap of portraying enslaved people as abject victims, the exhibition’s organizers delve into their and their descendants’ subjectivity, delivering a nuanced picture of individual experiences of subjugation and resistance to it.
Several works in the exhibition prompt viewers to do the work of interpretation independently, such as Maya Stovall’s 1526 (NASDAQ: FAANG), no. 1 (2019). This installation quietly displays the number 1526 in pale yellow neon, while the didactic reveals a complex mélange of materials: “archives, buttercream neon, and FAANG fonts.” The numeral refers to the year of the first recorded slave revolt in what became the U.S., and “buttercream neon” points to the triangular trade route, in which sugar was often exchanged for slaves. FAANG is the stock market acronym for NASDAQ big-hitters Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Stovall’s meaning, once it arrives, hits like a brick: Slavery created wealth that still drives values today.
Stovall’s neon is a pivot point in the show. The worldwide epiphany on these issues resounded in 2020, but old white supremacist structures of memory had started to crumble before then. In 1989, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), which would set up a commission to study reparation proposals for African Americans. The bill languished despite the fact that Conyers sponsored the Act in each Congress for the following nearly 30 years of his career. But in recent years, a wider swath of people has begun to awaken to the idea of restitution, what Malcolm X once called “payday—retroactive.”4 In 2014, The Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” in which he assessed the U.S. as a “regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.”5 In December 2022, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the sponsor of the current iteration, urged President Biden to pass H.R. 40 via executive order.6
This movement is happening globally, too—in 2007, Guyana called on European nations to pay reparations for slavery. In 2011, Antigua and Barbuda followed suit. Back in the U.S., members of the public also began to demand the recoup of what they’d lost. For example, in the 2010s, many individuals and groups worked to take back their communities by acts of damnatio memoriae, calling for the removal of Confederate monuments to the likes of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart.7 And at the time of publication, L.A.’s own Reparations Advisory Commission (established June 2021) prepares to issue recommendations for addressing disparities affecting the city’s Black residents.8
Afro-Atlantic Histories simultaneously offers a memorial space for community healing, describes the big picture of the Black Atlantic, and takes part in this political moment. Interestingly, when I asked Gonzalez if LACMA had invited L.A.’s Commission members for a viewing, she said the museum had not done so. I felt momentarily disappointed. But then, I wondered about my own political expectations of arts institutions. Does LACMA have an obligation to press for social change directly?
Perhaps they do. Museums, which have long played a historical role in the plunder of people of color’s bodies and cultural products, can owe special moral and legal duties to repair the injustices of the past.9 While Harvard’s Peabody neglected to do right by Lanier, some cultural organizations have made strides in this direction, such as The Brooklyn Museum, which repatriated pre-Hispanic artifacts to Costa Rica in both 2011 and 2020.10 Arts institutions find themselves grappling with a paradigm shift regarding their responsibilities to historically dominated peoples, and, within this moment, the possibility of LACMA serving as a container for active community reparations dialogues is a heady one.
For now, Gonzalez’s and Blondet’s passionate curation has laid the table, and it is up to the public to attend, remember, critique, and consider our next steps. The labor that the artworks require of their audience is not just aesthetic, but political. The show demands that we do the work. In 2019, Tamara Lanier responded to two daguerreotypes in a museum’s collection with legal action. Afro-Atlantic Histories—or any one exhibition for that matter—is clearly not enough to repair the injustice of slavery. Only many continued acts of good faith, the redistribution of wealth, and communal transformation can begin to remedy the outrages so ably documented by the artists represented here. The painful revelations of exhibitions such as this one challenge viewers on both personal and social levels, and thus constitute the first step toward a global reckoning.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.