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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

 | 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Claudine Raynaud

Re-Presentations of the Black Subject

Guerilla Memorialisation in the Wake of Slavery’s Legacy: African Atlantic Art in the 1990s

Alan Rice

Résumé

This paper contrasts American-born, Kara Walker’s dark vision of the history of the American South with Cuban-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons translucent installations about migration and the legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Lubaina Himid’s dynamic works about black women and the ocean. All three created stellar works in the 1990s with related, but completely different, visions of slavery and its consequences. This chapter will mobilise discussion of the abject and memory both redemptive and unredeemable to outline the difficulties of representing the slave past. It will in particular discuss issues of gender, sex and labour in all three artists’ work. It will use a theoretical frame developed through the work of Paul Ricœur, Dominick LaCapra, Saidiya Hartman, Dionne Brand, Hershini Bhana Young, Jean Fisher, Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison to essay the differences of approach in these three artists. In particular it will show how Walker’s ‘suckling from history’ is steeped in a problematic attachment to the abject which is in danger of promoting a conservative ideology in the present and will contrast this with Himid’s more radical vision and Campos-Pons’ imaginative evocation where the very signs of domestic servitude in a confined space are transformed by the operation of memory and diasporic consciousness into a theatre for mobility and transformative redemption that make for a truly radical vision.

Texte intégral

1The poster is large and colourful and surprisingly ubiquitous in the London Underground during the early months of 2012. Promoting Tate Britain’s show Migrations, it shows the painting ‘Between the Two My Heart is Balanced’ (1991) by the black British artist Lubaina Himid. This depicts two colourfully attired African women adrift in a boat surrounded by sea. Between them is a pile of richly coloured maps and charts that the women are tearing to pieces and throwing overboard. Later in this article I will discuss the meaning of this signally brilliant African Atlantic painting and its relationship to the history of slavery and post-slavery. However, for now, I want to revel in the ubiquity of a painting that showcases the Tate’s ideas around migration, the one seen as key to bringing ordinary people into its twenty-first century ‘multicultural’ halls. I want to revel because its ubiquity and the Tate’s promotion of it stands in stark contrast to the painting’s debut exhibition as part of Himid’s 1992 solo show Revenge: A Masque in Five Tableaux. At the distinctly provincial and unfashionable Rochdale Art Gallery, Himid’s show did not go unnoticed; however, its marginality in comparison to the emerging YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst who were beginning their Saatchi driven ascent to mega-stardom in the capital is noteworthy. The provincial debut of Revenge and its lack of a touring schedule meant that its importance (and thence its artist’s), both nationally and in the international context of black Atlantic cultural praxis, has not been fully acknowledged. In this essay, I want to place Revenge in an international black Atlantic context where its full ramifications can be gauged, to place it beside other African diaspora art and artists and assess it their importance to interventions about slavery and memory in the 1990s. Far too often, despite the two decades since Paul Gilroy’s groundbreaking The Black Atlantic, African Atlantic art has been discussed in national silos without the comparative work that enhances our understanding of it. Gilroy’s call for cultural historians to treat the Atlantic ‘as one single complex unit of analysis in their discussion of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective’ (Gilroy 1993: 15) is one that I take up here in placing Himid’s work in the context of a black Atlantic praxis. As Gilroy says, ‘national units are not the most appropriate basis for studying this history for the African diaspora’s consciousness of itself has been defined in and against national borders’ (Gilroy 1987: 158). A multitude of works about slavery and memory were produced by black artists in the 1990s, but I will concentrate on just a few works in order to make the critical analysis more than just a survey.

2Central to discussions about slavery and memory is the maverick African American artist Kara Walker who burst onto the scene in 1994 and any reckoning of the period has to, however reluctantly, engage with her work. Another landmark in artistic praxis, as well as in political engagement, was Fred Wilson’s 1992 show Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) in Baltimore, which made significant comments on the legacy of slavery through its playful guerrilla escapades. As noted above, the engagement of different geographical regions in the diaspora is key to a full understanding of African Atlantic art praxis, and I will discuss how the brilliant installations of Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons show synergies around the circum-Atlantic and illustrate the currency of what we might call a diaspora aesthetics amongst many of the best African-descended artists working in the 1990s.

3It is difficult not to be hugely impressed by Kara Walker’s dark vision of the history of the American South. The scale of her conception is compelling, with huge narratives relating a fully realised, if frankly grotesque, vision. Her large, black silhouettes on the bare white walls of American and European galleries testify to the horrors of a slave past replete with sexual depravity, violence and the dirty business of fantastical and crude stereotypes that it fostered; its power to shock then and its continuing ramifications in the here and now. Her 1995 cut paper installation ‘The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eve in Heaven’ is a phantasmagoric nightmare inspired by the horrors related in slave narratives and in the sentimental genre that followed them, exemplified by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here, the characters in Stowe’s novel are outrageous exaggerations with an axe-wielding Little Eva preparing to strike a black toddler, a spike-wielding Topsy threatening Eva, and a praying Uncle Tom connected by an umbilical cord to a black baby. Meanwhile, a master figure with a wooden leg skewers a black baby with a sword as he simultaneously copulates with a pre-pubescent girl who seems to be sucked into his body; and this is just the centrepiece. There is ingestation, sadomasochism, defecation and the impregnation of orifices in a debauched and disgusting vision of a debased society. It is hard to disagree with Celeste Marie Bernier’s discussion of such pieces:

Her experimental installations relish in an art of bodily appetites as her gorging, swallowing and penetrating black and white bodies provide a space within which her viewers can viscerally relive taboo and untold stories of slavery. Moreover, the sense that the body parts of Walker’s protagonists can suddenly ‘feed on one another’ and belong to her viewers encourages a far more visceral form of identification with slavery than had been created by any other African American artist either before or since.
(Bernier 2008: 217)

4The piece is stark and terrible, its Manichean vision articulating the symbolic and actual power that slavery still holds in American culture, and Walker exhibits a certain bravery in visioning it. As she says herself:

I could kind of embody an assessment of stereotypes and cull the art out of them [...] the degraded Nigger wench, the blood-drenched lynch mob; I wanted to seduce the audience into participating in this humiliating exercise/exorcise with me.
(Armstrong 1997: 106)

5Taking Walker at her word, the work can be seen as the latest effort of African American and liberal white artists and writers to deal with the legacy of slavery and in a cathartic moment of extreme revelation use their work to progress toward the ending of the stereotypes the work embodies. This ‘humiliating exercise’ is a joint enterprise that is described as difficult but necessary for both artists and audiences, if a true exorcism were to be possible. Note also Walker’s use of language, her desire to ‘seduce the audience into participating’; this idea of seduction is exemplified in her paradoxical use of the ultra-sharp silhouette forms that speak the unspeakable with the clean lines and crafted images of the nineteenth century drawing room. The seductive beauty of her art performs a terrible dark truth in order to cleanse/exorcise an horrific history. Dominick La Capra has talked of the ‘crucial role’ in history for ‘empathetic unsettlement’ to enable understanding of the horrific and it is precisely this that Walker attempts in her use of stereotypes and the abject to disturb and undermine accepted ideas and historical figurations and fabulations that have been passed down by traditions such as the Southern Romance (La Capra 2004: 140). Her work is best viewed as an act of ‘ [r]edressing the pained (black) body’ as Saidiya Hartman has observed: ‘This pain might best be described as the history that hurts—the still unfolding narrative of captivity, dispossession and domination that engenders the black subject in the Americas’ (Hartman 1997: 51).

6This ‘history that hurts’ is the material with which Walker works. But, as Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw points out, her art has further ramifications, as it refuses the consolation of the redemptive narrative offered by a liberal abolitionist framework. She describes how the work articulates a different, more disturbing vision than had hitherto been proposed:

Walker not only visualises the sanctioned histories that can be culled from such a story; she critiques the ‘cleansing’ of history that abolitionist rewritings performed; she attempts to rememory what is missing, to say what they could not [...] Through visual utterance she commands the return of the repressed, the seeing of the unspeakable.
(Dubois Shaw 2004: 52)

7In such a reading, Walker’s work provides a necessary, if brutal, corrective to the suppression of the truth about the horrors of slavery. Dubois Shaw’s language is replete with psychoanalytic notions about the way Walker’s work enables a coming to terms with a dark past that has been suppressed by victims and perpetrators and echoes a legion of cultural critics of African Atlantic history who, in the wake of Toni Morrison’s ghost story Beloved (1987), discussed slavery in terms of spectrality. As Hershini Bhana Young contends, ‘The African diasporic ghost story is thus, quite literally, about the truth concerning oppression coming back, the return of the repressed and suppressed’ (Young 2006: 42). This Gothic element in Walker’s work is emphasised by the dark silhouette forms and gratuitous violence, by supernatural flying and bodily dismemberment, disability and malfunction. Central to Walker’s vision is, however, the black body in its historical role as plaything for the Southern slave master and selfless succour to white children. As Dionne Brand observes, these bodies are deeply imbricated in the psyche of slave-owners and their descendants; ‘projections of [their] sensibilities, consciousness, needs, desires and fears’ (Brand 2001: 31). She continues:

The body is the place of captivity. The Black body is situated as a sign of particular cultural and political meaning [...] as if those leaping bodies, those prostrate bodies, those bodies made to dance and then to work, those bodies curdling under the singing of whips, those bodies cursed, those bodies valued, those bodies remain curved in those attitudes. They remain fixed in the ether of history.
(Brand 2001: 34)

8Walker is at least attempting to disturb and unravel the fixtures and fittings of an American and especially a Southern history, to disturb and disrupt ‘the ether of history’, but this is not just an abstract exercise that will help re-imagine a past. Her vision, as she articulates in the statement above, is to exorcise this past because of its influence in the here and now. As Brand points out, African Americans are still under the threat of a racial imaginary that limits and oppresses the whole society. She describes how black bodies

leap onto the backs of the contemporary—they cleave not only to the collective and acquired memories of the descendants but also to the collective and acquired memories of the other. We all enter those bodies.
(Brand 2001: 34)

9This is both a significant strength of Walker’s work and a major problem. It not only discloses a tortured history, but projects these images and their disturbing ideologies into the maelstrom of contemporary racial signification and the politics of race. Much of the sustained criticism of the work, exemplified by black artists Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell, and collected in the sclerotic Kara Walker No/Kara Walker Yes/Kara Walker?, is concerned with the way the stereotyped images of African Americans play to a racist agenda. It is best summed up by the critique of one of the many bloggers who reacted to the 2007 exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love at the Whitney Museum, New York. Christopher, a 26-year old African American, says:

Walker’s work does not subvert the white supremacist imagination of blackness but rather re-presents it in the tangible here and now, bows to the hegemonic forces and makes offerings of eagerly copulating slave women, debased pickaninnies and confused buckoons [...] Walker’s work disturbs me because while it does present a horrifying, grotesque, epic vision of this country’s foundation it simultaneously hints that it is all ok, that blacks are just as complicit as whites and that these horrors were somehow, in part, self-extracted. She presents this racialized psychosexual fantasy as an obscured reality/shadows on the wall, as the (subhuman) raw material blacks are truly made of.
(Pindell 2009: 107)

10This is a powerful and emotional critique, that becomes more compelling as Walker’s work fails to progress from its relentless concentration on the debased, stereotyped images of blackness that suffuse this early work. There is a fine line between presenting stereotypes in order to subvert them and invoking them so often that they become everyday, normalised even, and this is a central problem in Walker’s work.

11However, in discussing her work from the 1990s I do not want to be distracted into a discussion about reception or how she failed to develop beyond obsession with these images, though I acknowledge the importance of these debates. Rather, I want to examine a specific element of ‘The End of Uncle Tom’, and other examples from Walker’s work, as a way to critique her praxis with a historical lens. In one corner of this installation is a compelling image that reflects the lives of women in slavery, an image of breastfeeding women. Walker herself points to the importance of such images in her work when she discusses the correlation between breastfeeding, weaning and history in a remarkably revealing disquisition:

History. My constant need to suckle from history, or through history could be seen as a seemingly endless supply of mother’s milk refreshed by the big black mammy of old. For myself I have this constant battle— this form of weaning. It’s really a battle I apply to the black community as well, because all of our progress is predicated on having a very tactile link to a brutal past.
(Armstrong 1997: 113)

12Walker’s description of herself suckling from history and being unable to wean herself off it is a powerful self-analysis shown by her constant reiteration of themes from this slave past in her work over two decades. More than this, her description shows a compulsion in the suckling that she projects onto the larger African American culture and includes here as an important image for understanding the installation and its wider meaning. Her suckling from history could even be said to be literally portrayed in an image from ‘Uncle Tom...’: a slave woman stands bare-breasted while a full grown woman breastfeeds from her; she too is bare-breasted and is breastfed by a woman who emerges from under the first woman. The effect is almost like a Russian doll with different characters virtually inside each other repeating the action. This reflects Walker’s discussion above and shows how the repetition of an action and its circularity is a key trope of the history of blacks in slavery. Meanwhile, a slave child is straining to reach a breast to satiate his hunger, but is unable to suckle because of the frantic feeding activities of the three women who are ignoring him. This image has been discussed with great sensitivity by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw who sees in it ‘a racialized transgression of sexual and gender roles’, as ‘the women have neglected their duties as slaves and are now nursing each other’ in order to assuage their erotic desires (Dubois Shaw 2004: 47). Shaw’s discussion of the breastfeeding mania foregrounds it as a lesbian activity, a radical alterity in the context of a slave system that allows no such privatised sexual satisfaction. Moreover, she describes it as reflecting the absence of maternal satisfaction in the peculiar institution. She comments that:

The depiction of sexual self-reflexivity in Walker’s scene may be read, then, as an institutionally imposed mother-hunger [...] As they suck on and suckle each other, the history of slavery is passed between them. It visualises a desire for the lost maternal nurturing that was systematically withheld under the system of slavery, rather than the breast that is withheld by a ‘bad’ mother. Walker’s women live in the immediate moment in which their needs are being fulfilled. The beginning of their sexual experience is in fact the end, as what had so often been withheld from their grasp is finally released into it. The child, however, will simply have to wait.
(Dubois Shaw 2004: 48)

13This image of slave self-gratification and refusal of the maternal role challenges the stereotype of the faithful mammy and the slave harlot at the master’s beck and call. Rather than being the nurturer of white and black babies, these women nurture themselves. I agree with Dubois Shaw that this image has radical connotations in its reaction to the slave past and Walker’s art does surprise with its mixture of radical and reactionary; however, the problem of the work is its relentless furthering of a binary agenda that allows little room for nuance and sometimes this makes it beholden to a frankly reactionary agenda. I would like to pursue this argument around two other images of breastfeeding, this time by and of grown men. The first is in Walker’s ‘Before the Battle (Chickin’ Dumplin’)’ (1995; cf. Vergne 2007: 160). Here a topless black woman is shown breastfeeding a kneeling Confederate soldier. His suckling makes her drop the chicken bone she is feeding on, illustrating that the needs and desires of white Southerner slaveholders always come at the expense of their black slaves. His adult breastfeeding of her is a throwback to the nurturing he would have received from a black mammy, his wet-nurse when he was growing up. Walker portrays him as having never grown up beyond this infant state and undermines his martial status through his childish dependency on this black breast milk. The Confederacy is shown to be dependent on slavery right at this signal moment of seeming martial endeavour for self-determination. As in the image in ‘Uncle Tom...’ Walker here cleverly highlights aspects of historical Southern culture that are often hidden by Romantic apologists for the South, albeit through an image of black as well as white abjection.

14If this image of the black breastfeeding of a white adult reflects a radical response to the elisions and mythologies of white Southern history, the 1996 gouache ‘John Brown’ evens the score by visioning the limitations of white abolitionist mythology and martyrology (cf. Vergne 2007: 164). Brown was sentenced to death for his part in the multi-racial 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia that attempted the violent overthrow of slavery, and this work is a direct response to an array of images of his final walk from the jail to the gallows. These show Brown blessing a black babe-in-arms as his final act before his martyrdom, and depict him leaning down and kissing or blessing the infant presented to him by a submissive black woman. Walker’s work signifies on this by presenting a semi-naked Brown being suckled hard by a black baby carried in the arms of a proud black woman staring straight ahead. The baby pulls at the poorly lactating nipple, illustrating the scant meal any black would get from such an offering. Brown, in pain from the attentions of the infant, stares away from the mother and child. I believe this image shows the limitations of Walker’s political vision. If we compare it to the breastfeeding Confederate soldier we are encouraged to split white men into two camps: those slave-supporters who suckle on a slave system which supports their politics or those white abolitionists whose gift is merely the weak milk of human kindness, which does not satisfy. Such a binary vision does no service to the memory of a radical politics that pursued a multi-racial clash against slaveholders. Ultimately, an art praxis that dovetails a breastfeeding Confederate as equivalent to a lactating radical abolitionist promotes a decidedly nihilistic vision. In his astute polemic against liberal white guilt, The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation, Marcus Wood describes the manifestation of abolition as a gift from white patrimony as ‘a brilliantly constructed aesthetic system for the control of white guilt and black suffering and for the disguise of white culpability and black outrage’ (Wood 2010: 28–29). Walker’s depiction of Brown as lactating martyr could be said to embody such a critique. However, it is the image of Brown as constructed by post-Civil War Anglo-American artists that Walker presents, completely overlaying the actual historical Brown who, for all his faults, pursued an outraged, violent, multiracial reaction to the persistence of slavery that does not deserve such a niggardly response from one who according to her own testimony suckled from history. As Toni Morrison says, ‘ [There is] a necessity for remembering the horror, but of course there’s a necessity for remembering it in a manner which can be digested, in a manner in which memory is not destructive’ (Eckstein 2006: 228).

15Unfortunately, Walker’s powerful disturbing art does not allow for such a digestible memory and becomes at its worst destructive, working against radical colour-blind solutions to white supremacy. In light of the discussion above and of Morrison’s comment, Walker’s vision can be seen as brilliant but partial, didactically fierce but politically naïve: a binary vision of a history that needs anger and polemic, but cannot afford to be so blown away by that as to misread the past from which it suckles.

16If Kara Walker’s interventions amount to a suckling from the past, Fred Wilson was engaged in a different, if related, activity: mining the past. In 1992 he curated an exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, using items from the displays and the stores to create thought-provoking installations and surprising radical meanings that helped to change the way black artists worked with museums. From far too often being unconsidered servants to the curators, he posited and helped to create a role for them as brokers between the institution and old and new audiences. His praxis was explained by the title for his exhibition, as he discusses:

I called the installation ‘Mining the Museum’ because it could mean mining as in a gold mine—digging up something rich with meaning— or mining as a landmine—exploding myths and perceptions [...] I chose the Maryland Historical Society because it seemed to have raw material. Some artists use powdered pigments, empty canvasses, clay or just a pile of stuff—but this museum was raw material to me. It had everything. There was so much that could be done.
(Wilson 1992: 31–32)

17 He mined the ‘raw material’ of the museum for objects that he could mould to tell hitherto silenced stories from Maryland’s history. This practice is established at the start of the exhibition where Wilson uses a succession of plinths to critique the version of history the collection has traditionally foregrounded. The plinth is key to the way the exhibition space gives hallowed status, with those figures or objects on plinths given weight by being raised up. Wilson, mining the stores, found numerous examples of white historical figures to display, but a dearth of black figures; even Maryland black heroes were conspicuous by their absence. His display riffs on this absence in the museum and, by extension, in the wider historical record. In the centre is a globe used as a trophy in a local 1922 advertising competition which has carved on its surface the word ‘TRUTH’, which Wilson uses as a playful ironic device to foreground his polemical purpose. Where is the truth in a collection that marginalises its black heroes? To the right are three plinths with marble sculptured heads of Enlightenment men, Southerners Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, all of whom were slaveholders and supporters of slavery in their political roles. To the right are three empty plinths, showcasing the lack of black Marylanders in the collection. Wilson further emphasises this elision by labelling these plinths, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker, all prominent black Marylanders whom you would expect to find memorialised in a state museum. Wilson’s method, which he uses here and throughout the exhibition, is to dialogise what is highly visible in the collection with less visible or even invisible objects in order to highlight elision, both wilful and accidental. As he says himself:

[...] juxtaposition is one way of unlocking [history] without a didactic tone—allowing the objects to speak to each other. I feel that there is a dialogue between objects—sometimes subtle dialogue, sometimes pronounced dialogue, depending on how diverse the objects are and depending on who is seeing them too.
(Gonzalez 2011: 144)

18His juxtaposition here unlocks the racialized history the MHS has been complicit in, and his action could be said to be a guerrilla memorialisation that intervenes in the institution to enable more inclusive histories to be uncovered. Such guerrilla memorialisation strategically interrupts normalised exhibition space to work against traditional historiography and awaken the ghosts that have lain dormant (cf. Rice 2010). Here the plinths do memory work, their empty spaces alerting the audience to absences in the context of the plenitudinous, object-rich museum. Maurice Berger comments on how such interventions

construct an immediate phenomenological space in which the very objects and people wronged by the museum are literally placed centre stage. Acting as surrogates, as ghosts of the human beings that stand behind them as creators or victims, these objects ask questions that directly challenge the present-day status of the museum... How can museums change the practices of display and contextualization that have silenced us? What will the museum do if their patrons are not interested in seeing or hearing us?
(Berger 2011a: 130)

19In challenging the museum, Wilson creates a series of installations that have their own power to shock, emotionally engage and aesthetically please the viewer. He is a guerrilla worker, a ghost in the curatorial machine, undermining its hegemonic power and questioning its widely accepted truths. Wilson’s introduction of the ghostly presence, the spectral, can be compared to Walker’s praxis discussed earlier. Wilson’s empty plinths and manipulation of objects can be seen as spectres,

crucible[s] for political mediation and historical memory that enables us to rethink the relationship between knowledge and power, between an authorized and a vernacular witnessing of racial injury itself.
(Young 2006: 33)

20He challenges ‘authorized’ historical accounts by his juxtapositions and guerrilla memorialisation. In envisioning a slave presence, Wilson invokes the ghostly to critique a museology stymied by its historical attachment to an empiricism that elides narratives whose written history is marginalised and not kept on the record. As Saidiya Hartman contends:

The effort to ‘brush history against the grain’ requires excavations at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the dismembered past be retrieved, turning to forms of knowledge and practice not generally considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry or appropriate or adequate sources for history making and attending to the cultivated silences, exclusions, relations of violence and domination that engender the official accounts [...] The effort to reconstruct the history of the dominated is not discontinuous with dominant accounts or official history, but, rather, is a struggle within and against the constraints and silences imposed by the nature of the archive [...].
(Hartman 1997: 11)

21 And, we might add, ‘the nature of the museum’. Mining the Museum illustrates Wilson’s radical praxis throughout its displays; he foregrounds objects in order to ‘reconstruct the history of the dominated’ and to alert his audience to the lacunae that he seeks to alleviate. One of his most astute installations in the exhibition is ‘Cabinetmaking’, a faux Victorian drawing room with four elegant easy chairs facing the city’s nineteenth century whipping post he had found neglected in the stores. As Berger describes, Wilson’s juxtaposition animates history, as audiences are encouraged to use their imagination to fill these chairs and the whipping post with historical actors from their different subject positions, classes and races. Such objects are not normally arranged in the same museological space and Wilson’s purpose is to enact a guerrilla memorialisation that illustrates how the leisure of the rich is procured at the expense of labour, both free and unfree. Wilson is involved in no less than an attempt to remodel the relationship of audiences to museums; to expose the seeming objectivity of the traditional display and set it against alternative histories. This is his guerrilla memorialisation in the belly of the beast that is the traditional museum. He describes the process:

At first you went through the museum and encountered a regular, objective kind of environment about art and history in the United States. But through the context of my installation you began to see things differently. All of a sudden, the rest of the museum seemed very much someone’s point of view about history and culture. Not necessarily unscholarly—just not monolithic. If you take away from my installation the idea of the museum’s inherent subjectivity, that the institution is not entirely objective and that it is made up of various people’s desires, biases, and assumptions about the world, you can rethink your own relationship to the museum. The museum becomes a real place, not so different from what you know outside the edifice. Its seamless ability to encourage passivity among its visitors is shattered and is replaced by an actively engaged, thinking, feeling audience.
(Berger 2011b: 167–168)

22In a sense, what he asks the audience to do is to move from what Barthes would call a ‘readerly’ approach to the museum and instead adopt a ‘writerly’ approach. That is, to move from a passive acceptance of the given narrative to an active engagement; so that the audience does not merely passively read the museum as if it is a mere realist rendition of objective facts, but to read against the grain of its narrative, to complicate it and to pull out narratives obscured beneath its seeming plain rendition of historical fact. Wilson is the conduit, shattering the passivity of the audience. His practice can be compared to that of memory artists of the Holocaust, as discussed by James Young, whose interventions

[a]re not meant to instruct per se, but to throw previously received instruction into question. Their aim is not to reassure or console but to haunt visitors with the unpleasant—uncanny—sensation of calling into consciousness that which has been previously repressed.
(Young 2000: 180)

23One of Wilson’s most effective methods of undermining inertia and haunting the visitor is through literally making historical paintings speak, by displaying eighteenth century portraits and plantation scenes and giving voice to the black bystanders. In showing Justus Engelhardt Kuhn’s ‘Henry Darnall III’ (1710), a portrait of the juvenile young master with his black slave in a position of obeisance with an iron collar round his neck, Wilson juxtaposes the portrait (and others showing black slave children) with a soundtrack that is triggered as the spectator approaches. These words bring the spectral forms to life and move them from the margins to the centre of the debate around the meaning of the paintings. Wilson presents their discourse as interrogative: ‘Where did I come from?/Where did I go?/What are my dreams?/Who washes my back?/Who combs my hair?/Who calms me when I am afraid?/Am I your brother?/Am I your friend?/Am I your pet?’ (Wilson 1992). The original portrait and the history of its viewing had been complicit in promoting a false consciousness about the history of slavery. As Simon Gikandi elucidates:

What is lacking in the artwork is, of course, the political economy of slavery, which is elided when the slave is turned into an object of art. The paradox of Kuhn’s portrait, then, is that it would give the slave the aura and standing he did not have in real life but would also distract the viewer from the violence that was attendant to enslavement.
(Gikandi 2011: 14)

24Wilson’s guerrilla memorialisation does not allow this distraction and forces the audience to encounter the black boy as human being, with needs and desires, rather than the art object and chattel who is pictured only to enhance the status of the white boy. Wilson’s installations have ramifications in the here and now as well as for the depiction of the past. Homi Bhabha has described how the most interesting postcolonial art

[...] does not merely recall the past, as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space; that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The past-present becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living.
(Mirzoeff 2000: 7)

25Through his art Wilson dialogises the present with interpretations of the past to discomfort a nostalgia for the past which is not only inherently conservative, but also dangerously complacent. His installations are designed to interrogate the past, to effect a guerrilla memorialisation that makes audiences alert to the hidden narratives in objects, to their spectral voices. Like bell hooks, he wants to achieve ‘politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia, that longing for something to be as it once was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present’ (hooks 1991: 147). The major triumph of Mining the Museum is not just that it refigures the past, but also that its guerrilla memorialisation makes the objects speak to and influence contemporary racial realities.

26If, as we have seen, Kara Walker suckles from history and Fred Wilson mines it, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban artist now resident in the United States, could be said to bathe in its watery depths. Her large body of work over the last twenty-five years continually investigates the meaning of migration and the legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Jean Fisher has discussed ‘the way the experience of cultural trauma and remembrance animated diasporic artistic practices’ and Campos-Pons’ work is testimony to this collision of traumatic legacy, memory and forgetting. Fisher continues:

In confronting the articulation of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ by reference to the historical archive and individual testimony, black diasporic artists reassembled a body to be mourned from the fragments of the past to produce a radical revision of our representations of historical process, national culture and the construction of subjectivities.
(Fisher 2008: 192)

27It is this subtle collusion of historical and testimonial fragments that distinguishes the work. Campos-Pons’ altar-like installations from the 1990s used both archival sources and family remembrance to produce art works that celebrated and mourned her ancestors from Africa and the Caribbean. Her 1998 piece ‘Spoken Softly with Mama’, first shown in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, is exemplary. The space is dark with images projected onto seven upright forms. These are shaped as ships’ hulls, tombstones, coffins and/or ironing boards, illuminating the multiplicity of the black Atlantic world Campos-Pons is summoning, where slaves are carried across oceans in ships to perform domestic labour. But they also bring with them a culture, including elements of religion that, in the form of Santeria, is exemplified here by the altar-like form of the installation. Sally Berger calls it ‘a magnificent altar in visual and poetic praise of the women’s fortitude that nourished family and friends following the end of slavery’ (Berger 2001: 135). The images projected onto four of the upright forms are monochrome, life-sized photographs of female ancestors stretching back to the nineteenth century that give faces and hence identities to the usually nameless and marginalised domestic labourers. The other three projections are of bodies walking or crouching with a watery backdrop. Laid out in front of these upright forms are dozens of translucent pâte de verre irons which are placed around trivets arranged in flower-like patterns. The trivets and irons in the work illustrate the female domestic space of slavery and post-slavery poverty in the diaspora as key to the working of memory, with objects that are usually anchored in the repetitive drudgery of the domestic enclosed space of the home transmogrified by being placed in new spaces and even given a mobile impetus. The translucent irons, ‘like foam floating on the sea, inanimate objects charged with life’ (Berger 2001: 138), are imagined as being parts of flotillas on the ocean waves carrying memory round the circum-Atlantic space, circling islands of trivets transformed into things of beauty. From the domestic detritus of labouring poverty, Campos-Pons makes redemptive forms that posit mobility and escape, showing that black Atlantic movement is dependent on the workings of ancestral memory and remembrance. What are constructed here are ‘diasporic landscapes of longing’ (Wendt 2008: 237) that connect the migrant subject to her multiple pasts in Cuba and Africa. Private and public memory are combined by Campos-Pons, for whom memory is a fragile and translucent concept:

I am interested in memory, because memories are like little panes of glass. They are fragile, they are vulnerable; they are stable and resistant. They are extremely delicate. So I always think of, and always talk about memories as being as much about fiction as they are about reality. I always say that I know that memory is a slippery place [...] in some pieces [...] I want to use the past metaphorically [...] I hope that the layering and the topography of surfaces and materials create one simple reality. I hope that the work holds together.
(Murray 2008: 247)

28 The work does hold together by foregrounding private memory to tell a public story of dispersal in the wake of trauma. Campos-Pons’ ‘semi-fictional’ memories can fill the gaps in the historical record that have been obliterated by the destructive histories of slavery and colonialism. In this way her praxis brings forward memory as a tool against the forgetting of a traumatic past by the majority culture. Paul Ricœur reminds us that:

Historical knowledge perhaps has never, in fact, stopped dealing with these visions of historical time, when it speaks of cyclical or linear time, stationary time, decline or progress. Will it not then be the task of a memory instructed by history to preserve the trace of this speculative history over the centuries and to integrate it into its symbolic universe? This will be the highest destination of memory, not before, but after history.
(Ricœur 2004: 161)

29Ricœur here proposes that memory need not be the raw material that makes history, but is capable of being that which helps to bring enlightenment anterior to the historical narrative to help fill the gaps traumatic histories engender. Campos-Pons’ conception of memory, which she works through in installations like ‘Spoken Softly With Mama’, posits memory as mobile, circular, non-linear, working with history, but no prisoner of it. In talking of her work ‘Threads of Memories’ (2003) she describes a way of using memory that I think was also present during the conception of her earlier installation:

My work [...] is an attempt to comprehend and perhaps to represent the mechanics of memory, the traces of time that constitute the materiality of memory and those aspects that permeate a personal or collective history, inscribed on objects, place and recollections. But what and why memories, how it reads in the visual language, what is the morphology of its syntax?
I think that memories first are the circuits of the past as they weave themselves on the present, so when talking about memory in my work I want to locate it not in the past but in its transient quality, in its permeability. Is memory horizontal, past, present and future, vertical? It is Feminine. It is that solid line surrounding everything and everywhere. But also memory is selective, not all is recollected.
(Campos-Pons 2007: 79)

30Key to this brilliantly succinct riff on memory is her discussion of it as transient, selective and permeable. These are the aspects of the memorial sublime which ‘Softly Spoken with Mama’ expresses through the interaction of its various objects. The watery past, the cartographical imagination and the cosiness of family space are juxtaposed and layered with the history of enslavement and diasporic trauma to create a memorial space that works in many dimensions. As Campos-Pons says,

I am interested in the private against the public, the small account against the large in everyday life, the particular experience, the insignificant others. I am using my family words to inscribe the stones that have only been used to tell the stories of heroes. Yes, memories are fragile, but they are strong too.
(Berger 2001: 125)

31Her installation promotes a new group of heroes whose memory should be inscribed on stones, the often anonymous diasporic Africans who survived all that slavery and racism threw at them, the continuity of whose narratives is established by the work itself. Stuart Hall has talked of the ‘ruptures and discontinuities which constitute precisely, the Caribbean “uniqueness”’ and it is these that are so brilliantly imagined in Campos-Pons’ oceanic installation. In fact it promotes a version of Caribbean cultural identity as ‘a matter of ‘becoming” as well as of “being”’ that chimes with Hall’s definition:

[Identity] belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformations. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.
(Mirzoeff 2000: 23)

32Hall’s conception of identities that are not fixed by the operation of a traditional notion of an unchanging history provides a conceptual background to Campos-Pons’ imaginative evocation where the very signs of domestic servitude in a confined space are transformed by the operation of memory and diasporic consciousness into a theatre for mobility and transformative redemption. For Campos-Pons, as for so many other African Atlantic artists, ‘The past never ends though, but becomes transformed. The transformative labor of memory folds the past and present into each other as it registers multiple temporalities and experiences’ (Mustafa 2008: 63).

33 Like Campos-Pons, Lubaina Himid is engaged in work that disrupts linear chronologies and explores extended cartographies to fully express African Atlantic diasporic realities in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. She emerged as one of an important group of black British artists who, in a number of landmark exhibitions in the 1980s, constructed a space for a radical, questioning agenda across issues of race, class and gender. These artists included Keith Piper, Isaac Julien, Eddie Chambers, Ingrid Pollard, Maud Sulter and Sonia Boyce, who all used their work to interrogate the legacy of slavery. Exhibited at Rochdale Art Gallery in 1992, Himid’s sequence Revenge, together with its revelatory catalogue, included sketches, finished works, installations and text that built into a commentary on the slave trade and its legacies. The title is explained by Himid as being a reference to black people’s survival despite the vicissitudes of slavery, imperialism, oppression and a racist art establishment: ‘The revenge is still being here, the still being visible, despite the challenge of that’ (Rice 2003: 23). As I discussed earlier, Himid’s painting from the exhibition, ‘Between the Two My Heart is Balanced’, has become, because of its acquisition by the Tate, a signal piece in terms of black British art and feminism. As Himid herself told me:

I love to see it out and I very much like to see how when it is out people look at it, and they really seem to like it [...] I think I made a political painting there [...] They use it for their own ends politically [...] it’s used as a conversation piece between the Tate—the establishment—and the audience, especially when the audience is ‘other’. [Meanwhile] I was trying to paint myself and my compatriots, my fellow black artists, if you like, into the history of British painting. And I’m trying to make a comment about how European artists have hijacked some of our African and Caribbean imagery, our bodies and all the rest of it, and I’ve hijacked some of it back.
(Rice 2003: 21–23)

34In her dramatic portrayal, two African women in native dress, and with an African cloth design between them, sit in an open boat mid-ocean, ‘tearing up navigation charts’ (Himid 1992: 14). This calm, utopian scene depicts the survival of African culture despite the intervention of slavery and colonialism. The women take control mid-ocean, consigning Western charts which have been the bane of the enslaved blacks—crucially allowing Europeans to steer more accurately between African and American slave ports—to the depths of the sea. As Himid explained, ‘the painting is a musing on what would happen if black women got together and started to try and destroy maps and charts—to undo what has been done’ (Himid 2001). Her centralising of black women in this image of the black Atlantic signifies on the masculinist nature of many interpretations of the history of African resistance to slavery and colonialism, performing a needful corrective to such chauvinism. Speaking of quilting, Jacqueline Nassy Brown discusses how ‘the cosmopolitanism of women and families would be lost in a sea of narratives that privilege oceans as sites of global, manly adventure’ (Brown 2005: 229). Himid’s women, like those of Campos-Pons, are central heroic characters in her reformulated black Atlantic history. Their counter-cultural chart seems to be the cloth which one woman holds up between them that invokes the African culture that links blacks across the ocean. As Jill Morgan contends:

[the paintings] weave around the concept of fabric. The making of cloth, the creation of patterns, women’s clothing and fabric, the existence of fabric as a form of Black women’s creativity. Lubaina has chosen fabric to be the ground, the arena for the battle with imperialism.
(Morgan 1992: 24)

35Her women are clothed mid-Atlantic, unlike those millions of naked women transported in the Middle Passage and thus her painting intervenes to reimagine and bring agency to African diasporic women through the feminine material of cloth. As Simon Gikandi discusses, the very act of undressing slaves was part of their dehumanisation:

What is apparent, however, is that when slaves stepped out of the slave ship, they were often naked, or almost naked, and this nakedness did not represent uncleanliness, or even the absence of righteousness, but cultural lack. Slave traders perceived such acts of undressing as a key condition of enslavement. Here, the slavers were not simply reducing slaves to a state of beastliness but also depriving them of the capacity for memory and social connection [...] clothing was a form of material memory.
(Gikandi 2011: 215)

36Afloat in the ocean, Himid’s clothed women bring radical agency to the visual economy of the black Atlantic. Gikandi’s emphasis on memory and social connection as communicated by clothing is mirrored by Himid’s radical re-imagination. The wider culture had by the 1990s forgotten the history of slavery and its importance in the creation of the modern British state. The trope of forgetting, though, is crucial to Himid’s political praxis. Ricœur has talked of the intimate relationship of forgetting, memory and history:

[I]t is the past, in its twofold mnemonic and historical dimension, that is lost in forgetting [...] There is forgetting wherever there had been a trace. But forgetting is not only the enemy of memory and of history. One of the theses to which I am most attached is that there also exists a reserve of forgetting, which can be a resource for memory and for history [...] Forgetting is the emblem of the vulnerability of the historical condition taken as a whole.
(Ricœur 2004: 284)

37Like Campos-Pons, Himid mines this reserve of forgetting to imaginatively propose women liberating themselves through movement and like her she uses black women’s memory of this routed path out of slavery and imperialism as a means of reinterpreting an inadequate historical archive. In Revenge, there are four other canvases which feature two black women ‘at different moments in history engaged in the planning of strategy’, all of which ‘position black women within a history and as catalysts for changing the course’ (Morgan 1992: 22). Himid’s poetic prose fragments describe these:

Two women standing ankle deep behind banners in front of cloths shredding maps; fragments float away. Two women sit in a small boat tearing up navigation charts; how many died crossing the water. Two women sit in a theatre box ripping up maps; can the past be replayed. Two women sit at dinner forming strategy; can the future be different better. Two women sit on rugs reliving the history and planning the future; magic carpets fly.
(Himid 1992: 14)

38Each of the paintings is described in bare pictorial terms and then its possible meaning figured beyond the canvas. The two women are always at the centre poised between memory and forgetting, proposing alternate histories. The other group of works in Revenge deal with the legacy of the slave ship Zong under the captaincy of Luke Collingwood who in 1781 was responsible for the murder of 132 slaves infamously thrown overboard, as he calculated that if they died of natural causes, the ship’s owners would have to bear the loss, whereas if they died at sea, the insurers would have to do so. This pivotal incident in the history of the British slave trade has ramifications far beyond mass-murder, as Ian Baucom discusses in his magisterial book Specters of the Atlantic: ‘As a truth event of the speculative cultural situation of finance capital, the Zong [is] a symptomatic case—one which identifies not a marginal malfunctioning or local abnormality but the global abnormality of the system as such’ (Baucom 2005: 122).

39It is because of its symptomatic nature that Himid is drawn to it in a series of small paintings that explore how a memorial to the victims of the incident, and hence to those of the middle passage, might look. One painting foregrounds the bleak economic calculations which Collingwood undertook before his act of throwing the ‘surplus’ Africans overboard. It also shows the dishonesty of his maths, as despite his testimony there was clearly enough water to go round. The text reads: ‘In 1781/440 minus/132 at 30 each/equals/420 gallons/a monument to Zong/a fountain near water/132 at £30 each and 420 gallons left’ (Himid 1992: 18).

40‘Memorial to Zong’ (1991) signifies on the imperial tradition of memorialisation through its central feature, a marble plinth. Instead of a doughty hero of empire astride it, Himid, like Wilson in his Mining the Museum, signifies on that history by placing on it a white jug with an African head and shoulder portrait. This exemplifies the crucial white/black dichotomy in the middle passage, highlighted by the Zong incident’s disavowal of the importance of black lives. The jug leaks water from its spout, which symbolises the dispersal of African lives in this incident and numerous others. As Himid says, ‘The fountain is a memorial to the slave trade and those who died in it’, commemorating the ‘throwaway people’ of the middle passage (2001). The painting also shows a dark cloth shaped like a sail with a bowl collecting water shaped into numerous closely packed human figures. The former stands in for the countless voyages that have created the forced African diaspora whilst the water flowing into the bowl represents the human cargo and its survival despite the horrors of the voyage. Himid wants to emphasise the ‘waste’ of lives while celebrating the ‘contribution’ made by the survivors to diasporic African culture. This waste of lives comes in the context of the physical waste that, according to Saidiya Hartman (citing Marcel Henaff), continues as a residue of the trade in the slave forts that line the West African coast:

In 1972, a team of archaeologists excavated the dungeon and cleared away eighteen inches of dirt and waste. They identified the topmost layer of the floor as the compressed remains of captives—feces, blood, and exfoliated skin [...] Waste is the interface of life and death. It incarnates all that has been rendered invisible, peripheral, or expendable to history writ large, that is, history as the tale of great men, empire and nation. It ‘evokes the dull ordinary horror of what is vile, worthless and contemptible—a pile of shit’. Waste is the remnant of all the lives that are outside of history and ‘dissolved in utter amnesia’.
(Hartman 2007: 115)

41This physical waste is symbolic of the fact that enslaved Africans remained outside history. Himid’s memorial seeks to rescue these forgotten people from the status of detritus and give their lives meaning. She might well agree with Giorgio Agamben ‘that it is not truly possible to destroy the human, that something always remains. The witness is this remnant’ (Agamben 1999: 133–134). In a 2003 interview with me, she said:

I am trying to talk about the waste, the waste of creativity. The excuses that were used for throwing people overboard—that they were too ill to waste water on. I’m talking about the vast expanse of water between yesterday and tomorrow, Africa and the New World and I’m trying to talk also about the place where all those people are now in the water. They are the body of the water now, they are it. It’s still there and they are still there and they are still contributing. A moving kind of way of talking about the moving of a people from one place to another [...]
(Rice 2003: 24)

42Although twenty years have passed since her ‘Memorial to Zong’ sketches, Himid has never been asked to make a public memorial based on these wonderful ideas. We are left then with very powerful sketches that promote the making of a memorial of the slave past, using the reservoir of forgetting, in addition to sophisticated conceptual ideas around water, waste and accountancy. More than this, though, in promoting a debate about what should be memorialised, Himid, like her contemporary Campos-Pons, has forced to the forefront artistic and conceptual ideas that make contributions to memory studies and provide an interesting analogue to artists responding to the Holocaust who as James Young says have ‘made a critique of institutional memory fundamental to their work’ (Young 2000: 10). Himid, in like fashion, describes how she wanted her memorial to express

a kind of continuum, where there’s a going on, a tomorrow [...] I was trying to find a way to talk of a thing that is not there, sort of inside the invisible if you like. I am interested in the politics of representation, how when something is there you can talk about it, write about it, paint it, but when something isn’t there what can you say, how can you make something of it, how can it not have been in vain, if you like. So that idea for memorialising came from trying to visualize the invisible.
(Rice 2003: 24)

43In visualising the invisible, Himid shares with the African Atlantic artists I have discussed here a praxis of mining archives and race memory to create works that dynamically comment on histories of slavery and/or posit visions of the future that promote new versions of African Atlantic identity. Himid’s text accompanying ‘Memorial to Zong’ articulates this practice of looking both ways, for her memorial, like the works of these other artists, is not just a mourning but a call to action:

Water cascading falling spouting sparkling frothing whooshing trickling spurting foaming running pouring falling pooling puddling raining filling overflowing. A fountain a monument a memorial to people for water. For water to people wasted in water. A memorial to Zong. Singing buried treasure. After the mourning comes revenge. (1992: 13)

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