Haggerty’s “Thenceforward, and forever free”
Seven artists ponder freedom, history, race in a show with the Emancipation Proclamation as a starting point.
The Battle of Antietam was in the news last week, reminding us of the bloodiest fight within our borders in American history. Marquette University is commemorating the Sesquicentennial of this Civil War battle with the year-long Freedom Project. As part of this ongoing program, the Haggerty Museum of Art is hosting the exhibition Thenceforward, and Forever Free.
The exhibition title comes from the first sentence in the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, in the midst of war and shortly after Antietem. In this landmark document, president Lincoln proclaimed slaves in Confederate states free — with such border states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri excepted.
The proclamation is the starting point of this exhibition. From there, the viewer explores complicated notions of freedom. How is it defined? To what kind of freedom do we refer, and freedom from what, for whom?
This exhibition does not offer passive relaxation. It provokes consideration of significant notions of freedom in the past and present. Insightful essays by Marquette University faculty members Dr. A. Kristen Foster, associate professor in the Department of History, and Ms. Kali Murray, assistant professor from the university’s Law School grace the exhibition catalog. They make historical connections to the work of the seven artists on view.
Elisabeth Subrin’s video installation, “Lost Tribes and Promised Lands” (2001-2010), juxtaposes footage taken in her Brooklyn neighborhood just after the September 11 attacks with footage of those same places in 2010. The earlier views capture the ubiquitous display of flags and patriotic symbols. The more recent views show a variety of trends. In some cases, there is notable gentrification, in others shuttered doors and buildings showing another decade of age. One makeshift memorial has transformed into a permanent display. Subrin’s project, on the surface, is a documentary survey of places, but the underlying transformations are the real story. What has been the aftermath of 9/11 on the level of a neighborhood and personal space, the sense of freedom that comes from perceived safety? The early display of flags was a statement against violation, but time moves on. We recalibrate our emotional states to new perceptions and parameters of freedom.
Histories concerning racial equality and freedom are present in the work of Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles. Charles’ presents stereotypes of past advertising on a monumental scale. His paintings, from the mid-1990s and 2001, confront the viewer with bright images and text and the jarring effect of advertising as selling African American stereotypes. Walker also works on these covert messages. Using pages from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) as a base, she places silhouettes of figures within scenes of landscape and conflict. The silhouettes reflect 19th-century art practices, but Walker uses this technique to reflect the experiences of African Americans in a way that visually dominates compositions through strong contours with sharp, emotive power.