In conjunction with the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (the Carter) presents newly commissioned and recent works by Sadie Barnette, Alfred Conteh, Maya Freelon, Hugh Hayden, Letitia Huckaby, Jeffrey Meris, and Sable Elyse Smith in a new exhibition visualizing Black freedom, agency, and the legacy of the Civil War in 2023 and beyond. The seven installations featured in Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation—spanning sculpture, photography, and paper and textile fabrications—will react to the legacy of John Quincy Adams Ward’s bronze sculpture The Freedman (1863) from the Carter’s collection and will highlight the diversity of materials and forms in sculpture, installation, and mixed media today.
The emancipation exhibition demonstrates how historical art collections can be a resource and inspiration for contemporary artistic practices. Emancipation will be on view at the Carter from March 12 through July 9, 2023, before traveling to Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, WCMA, and Telfair Museums.
Seeking a deeper understanding of what freedom looks like for Black Americans after 160 years, Emancipation exhibition interrogates the role of sculpture in American life by bringing the perspectives of contemporary Black artists into dialogue with the multi-faceted form and content of Ward’s The Freedman. Initially envisioned and sculpted by Ward before the end of the Civil War, the figure is depicted on the cusp of liberation, with bonds ruptured, but not removed.
The work is one of the first American depictions of a Black figure cast in bronze, and the Carter’s cast from 1863—dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an all-Black infantry unit—is the only copy of its kind with a key that releases a shackle from the figure’s wrist.
While considered aspirational in its time, over a century and a half later, The Freedman’s reflection of uncertainty and endurance seem to manifest the long reach of American slavery. Contextualized by a selection of other Civil War-era works from the Carter; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park; and other collections, the figure’s contemporary resonance issues a prompt for portraits of freedom, imprisonment, corporality, personhood, and power in 2023 to inform the next century.
“Emancipation exemplifies the Carter’s dedication to cultivating open conversations on the complexity of American artistic creation both past and present,” Andrew J. Walker, Executive Director, said. “By critically engaging the layered history of iconic works from our collection, such as The Freedman, we give the work new life through contemporary perspectives on racial inequity, conflict, and representation while forging avenues for living artists to meaningfully shape future dialogue through artistic intervention.”
The seven living artists represented in the Emancipation exhibition were each invited to explore The Freedman through the lenses of their own lives and the multiplicity of meanings those contexts create for the form of emancipation.
- Sadie Barnette (b. 1984) will premier new drawing works—based on FBI files that document how her father’s work for the Black Panther Party caused him to live under surveillance—and a sculptural table featuring her signature glitter paint. Barnette’s interpretation of “emancipation” draws on themes of abolition and decommodification, introducing fantastical, celebratory materials like glitter to exist in conversation—and in conflict—with challenging historical materials.
- Alfred Conteh (b. 1975) will present his celebrated sculpture work Float together with a large-scale work on canvas to explore the relationship between freedom, economic stability, and citizenship, including African Americans’ right to bear arms for the protection of their families. Throughout his work, rust and decay serve as metaphors for the vulnerability of Black citizens under the corrosive weight of White supremacy.
- Maya Freelon (b. 1982) will make an entirely new site-specific work utilizing her signature approach to large-scale, colorful tissue-paper installations. For Freelon, using recycled materials, or “maximizing the minimal,” is itself an emancipatory act–dissolving barriers between “high” and “low” art and allowing accessible materials like tissue paper to take up space within historically inaccessible institutions. Her artistic practice has been influenced significantly by her grandmother, who provided Freelon with both experiential and literal material, as well as by her godmother and namesake, Dr. Maya Angelou.
- Hugh Hayden (b. 1983) creates work that serves to delight and repulse with seemingly comfortable elements and sharp, foreboding features that reference the discomfort of American historical narratives. For this exhibition, Hayden will create his own version of The Freedman, departing from his signature woodworking with a 3D-printed piece that locates the subject firmly within the present day.
- Letitia Huckaby (b. 1972) will present her new silhouette and photo series, The Descendants, responding to the recent discovery and excavation of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship, from Alabama’s Mobile River. The series will be joined by Huckaby’s multipart artwork Under Two Greenwoods, featuring autobiographical photo-textiles that reference sites of the Tulsa Massacre as well as the artist’s family origins in Greenwood, MS. These projects continue Huckaby’s ongoing exploration of questions surrounding heritage
- Jeffrey Meris (b. 1991) will activate new and recent work using plaster, including The Block is Hot, a kinetic sculpture that dispels dust onto the floor for Meris to then draw with. The artist, who was born in Haiti and raised in the Bahamas, sees his body of work as just that: a body—or rather, as possessing a dual identity of bodily and architectural, working in symphony to create something both technical and conceptual, as seen in The Block is Hot.
- Sable Elyse Smith (b. 1986) will build on her practice of creating large-scale installations that reflect on issues of incarceration through the materiality and spatial relationships of industrial furniture. In her interpretation of “emancipation,” Smith calls to attention the nuances of visibility and how the most apparent manifestations of violent systems do not capture their full scope. For this exhibition, Smith is creating a new iteration of her well-known jack sculptures, Riot I and Pivot II, which will allude for the first time to the unmistakable black, white, and blue colorway of a police car.
“As a curator, I’m tasked with unlocking the multiple meanings artworks accumulate over their lifetimes, but I hold the firm belief that historical works find their true potential in the hands of contemporary artists,” Maggie Adler, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper at the Carter, said. “The Carter is committed to fostering the efforts of living artists whose work resonates with history, and Emancipation is a case study in the new creative possibilities that can be realized by seeking inspiration from historical collections.”
The exhibition is co-curated by Maggie Adler, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper, and Maurita Poole, Executive Director of Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University.
“This exhibition is timely since Americans are reckoning with history and how to interpret the impact and after-effects of slavery,” Maurita Poole, Executive Director of Newcomb Art Museum and co-curator of Emancipation, said. “The contemporary art breathes new life into the notion of emancipation and hopefully will encourage audiences to reconsider their perspectives about freedom and full citizenship in the United States.”
Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation is co-organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Williams College Museum of Art.