The Continuing Impact of Slavery

January 15, 2015 Yale Gilder Lehrman Center Opinion 


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This Fall, three exhibitions and a conference at Yale investigated the relationship between Euro-Imperialism, slavery and visual culture: Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain at the Center for British Art at Yale University; Prospects of Empire: Slavery and Ecology in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain at the Lewis Walpole Library; Visualizing Slavery and British Culture in the Eighteenth Century (a conference organized by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition and Center for British Art); and The Legacy of Rape at Yale University, an exhibition at St Thomas More Catholic Church. Each event encouraged reflection on the ways in which ’seeing’ and ’sight’ can be deeply implicated in the act of colonizing, and also invited consideration of the way portraits construct the identity of the viewer in and through the identity of the sitter for the portrait, in other words, its subject/object. These exhibitions also made me think about the assumptions artists made about who will buy their paintings or photographs, for what purpose, and the way this may influence how they represent the people in their artworks.

Whilst the last exhibition I mention (The Legacy of Rape at Yale) concerned violence against women in contemporary conflict zones and contained very little in the way of written curation (except the direct testimony of the subjects in the portraits), the legacy of imperialism and of slavery seemed significant to The Legacy of Rape exhibition since each nation represented there (Colombia, Nepal, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia-Herzegovina) was deeply impacted by slavery and/or imperialism and—arguably—the continuation of violence and unrest in each state is a direct legacy of European imperialism and also contemporary forms of U.S. imperialism. The absence of a narrative around histories of imperialism and slavery connecting the zones of conflict in The Legacy of Rape exhibition seemed particularly glaring in light of this connection and led me to question how systems of power impact on our ways of seeing, how artwork can resist or be complicit with forms of cultural visibility (and invisibility) and whether artists and curators have a responsibility to contextualize symbolic and actual violence—the violence implicit in relations of social domination—through narrative and analysis.

I should contextualize my remarks about The Legacy of Rape exhibition by explaining that I visited the exhibit toward the end of its life at Yale, once it had been moved from the Courtyard to the reception at St Thomas More Catholic Church—thus I did not view it in its original environment. All the same, I was surprised by the feelings of pain and also rage I experienced when I viewed the exhibition and although these feelings were, in part, a response to the firsthand accounts of the female survivors of rape (a testament to the power of the exhibit itself) I was also aware that the environment precipitated a kind of sensory dysphoria for me, reading vivid accounts of rape while listening to the giggle of students socializing around the exhibit and the annoying repetitive crunching sound of a man eating a bag of chips and playing a video game on his laptop close-by. I wondered if my reaction to the exhibit was primarily a response to the incongruity between subject matter and curatorial space, or whether it was down to the nature of the material. The politics of display and installation at Yale can be charged, particularly in regard to race and with good reason. In 2007, a portrait of Elihu Yale (now exhibited in the Figures of Empire exhibition) that depicted the Yale founder with a black servant at his feet was replaced by a less controversial image, following years of questions about the painting and the location in which it was displayed (the Yale Daily News describes it as ‘hung in the seat of power’ in the ornate Corporation Room at the University for over a century).

In the case of The Legacy of Rape exhibition, intimate testimony was installed in a space in which it is likely to be - and largely is - ignored and disregarded. As David Spatz (one of the organisers for the Visualizing Slavery conference and Assistant Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center) commented, this raises questions about the impact of environment on the cultural import and meaning of the work displayed.

By contrast, in the Figures of Empire exhibition at the Center for British Art, we are all but forced to contemplate these three hundred year old paintings, to recognise and consider their aesthetic and social import within the marbled walls of a prestigious landmark building and in an environment of quiet contemplation. Filled with all the implications that the classical curatorial model carries, as sequestered from daily life, we are ushered into ‘deep thought’ (and you should be too…). For an exhibit working with slaves and masters as subjects, this type of curatorial space becomes even more starkly imbued with the negotiation of value and exchange systems: among them economic, cultural and racial. Its problematic aspects go beyond place and space and extend to the construction of identity.

Returning to the curatorial intent behind The Legacy of Rape exhibition, which sought to explore the tension between the everyday and extreme violence by putting it exactly in the midst of a social space—a different type of problematic emerged. I felt I would not be alone in wondering if white western women would be asked to describe their experience of rape in detail for a public photographic exhibition at Yale (in spite of the prevalence of sexual violence at institutions of higher education, including Yale). If white westerners were invited to give testimony, their photographs and descriptions of rape would not be exhibited in a space which students use to relax and hang out, to form a part of the ‘wallpaper’ of our public life. The lack of privacy and the vulnerability of the women portrayed in the exhibition pose questions about the role of intimacy in forming a certain kind of ‘humanity’, a humanity all too easily translated to victimhood in our culture, and its role in our visual culture and in perpetuating inequality in our contemporary moment. All of this points to a larger question: why ‘legacy’ and not ‘legacies’?

In London, where I live most of the time, I find that abject images of African men and women are fairly pervasive in our public life; contemporary Londoners will often find themselves absent-mindedly gazing at images of impoverished Africans staring imploringly from the pages of magazines and from posters on tube trains. This reminds me of Slavoj Žižek’s complaint about left-liberal humanitarian treatment of violence in his book Violence (2008) and his reference to a recent poster campaign advertising Starbuck’s contribution to health organizations in Guatemala; Žižek questions the ‘pseudo-urgency’ of the poster campaign and its implication that with every cup of Starbucks’ coffee you drink you save a child’s life. Whilst Žižek mildly satirizes the transparency of Starbuck’s economic motive he is equally critical of the broader ‘act now, think later’ culture in which charities and NGO’s as well as corporations encourage us to respond to the humanitarian crises in the world, without consideration of their causes. It interests me—as I reflect on the views of the speakers at the Visualising Slavery conference—to think about how the problematics latent in abject representation of black subjects in contemporary portraiture often mirror problematics of power represented in eighteenth century paintings; the very exactness of this symmetry draws these images into the same structures of power present in paintings of the eighteenth century. It seems that a contemporary visual economy of power and race subtly inflects and refers to an ‘invisible history’ of colonial representations of race and power.


Figures of Empire exhibition (Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Portrait of Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington and a Servant’)


To give an example, a portrait in the Figures of Empire exhibition (Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Portrait of Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington and a Servant’) places the power of the white nobleman and his ‘military splendor’ center-stage while reducing the role of the enslaved person to one of subjugated awe. The portrayal of the military splendor of whites and the subjugation of blacks as heroic is problematic to a contemporary audience. Yet arguably, the implication of subjugated awe in the imploring eyes of abject and impoverished black people in contemporary images of Africans should be equally problematic to ‘us’ now.The viewers of the eighteenth century painting seem invited to look upon the white subject with profound admiration while the viewers of the black subject in our contemporary visual economy are invited to look upon the African with profound pity. Furthermore, while the author of black subjugation is ‘proudly’ proclaimed in portraiture in the eighteenth century (in ways which make contemporary audiences uncomfortable) the author of black subjugation in our contemporary visual economy is missing, or arguably embodied in the viewer who enters, simply by viewing the image, into a relationship with ‘the African’ in which the viewer is the sole bearer of power. If power, domination and heroism were fetishized visually in the eighteenth century and sealed in perpetuity through portraiture so dispossession, powerlessness and victimization are now fetishized and sealed in perpetuity through continual circulation of images of the abject. The author and creator of dispossession, powerlessness and victimization is absent in the contemporary image and so is the military domination the west continues to wield over Africa through proxy wars and the support of military dictators. Perhaps the net effect of contemporary representation carries an unprecedented insidiousness precisely due to the fact that we have ‘rejected’ the trope (if not the practice) of slavery yet perpetuate ‘abjectness’ as ‘the African’s’ natural state.

In Violence Slavoj Žižek makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence; he writes “At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible subjective violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very effort to fight violence…’ If the curators of the Legacies of Rape exhibition had included a narrative of Euro-Imperialist and U.S. Imperialist domination would we have been able to identify the violence inherent to those forms of left-liberal humanitarian discourse which inure us to poverty with a bombardment images of the abject? Possibly. Yet neither the impact and action of violence, nor the relationship between written text and image, can be simplified to such an extent; it may be an endlessly, frustratingly incomplete intervention.

As Joseph Roach explained in the Visualizing Slavery conference, art is a material event—an event which acts on us psychically and communally in the present-tense, irrespective of the moment of a work’s original conception or creation. In other words, it doesn’t matter that a work of art is three hundred years old or six months old, it is acting on and altering our brains, our perception, our value-systems and our feelings in the present. The students and staff members who campaigned to remove the portrait of Elihu Yale and his servant from public display did so not to deny our imperialist history and Yale’s connection to it, but to acknowledge the impact of the painting in the present day and its reaffirmation of social hierarchies we struggle to change. The intimacy of the action of a work of art is integral to its power. However, I think it is important to note that the spatial politics of display and curation, the representation of social hierarchies within a work of art and the construction of identity within a particular hierarchy all combine to naturalize or denaturalize certain realities and it is up to curators to consider how such factors, combined, can de-naturalize narratives of white supremacy.

I am not opposed to any of the exhibitions I attended, as each enrich my understanding of our visual culture. I admire the bravery of the curators of the Figures of Empire and Prospects of Empire exhibitions and the ways in which the photographers in the Legacies of Rape exhibition consciously challenge and play with notions of intimacy and connection between viewer and subject. I admired the narrative implied by the combination of contemporary and historical images in Prospects of Empire, in particular Joscelyn Gardner’s series ‘Creole Portraits III” which subverted the genre of portraiture by replacing a human subject with the instruments of torture used to punish slaves. Gardner conveyed her subtle critique of the dehumanization of black people and of systems of enlightenment classification by presenting her ‘portraits’ in the style of botanical drawings. The juxtaposition of abolitionist and pro-slavery works seemed to critique the objectification of black people and the origins of aspects of our contemporary liberal humanitarian discourse.


“A Family Portrait” by William Hogarth.


Perhaps the ambivalence and complexity of this subject is best concluded with two images; in The Legacy of Rape exhibit some portraits of women showed their backs to the camera - an intimation of the shame and perhaps even social erasure rape imposed on them, combined with the subtle suggestion of defiance in subverting the conventions of portraiture. At the Visualizing Slavery conference academics discussed the erasure of the black subject in “A Family Portrait” by British artist William Hogarth.This image, in which only a pair of ‘ghostly hands’ of a black servant remain after the portrait was reframed, conveys the disposability of the black subject and their presence in the portrait as an appendage of white superiority, to be amputated at will. The implied choice of anonymity of the women who turn their backs to the camera in the photographs in The Legacy of Rape exhibition also suggests an erasure and a disembodied presence occasioned by the women’s deep offence and shame at their own disposability. It shames us all that there is no other form in which these particular women feel legible; erasure is yet again the default mode of presence for the black subject.

Rebecca Prichard is the Gilder Lehrman Center’s 2014-2015 Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery Fellow and an Award-Winning Playwright

Topics: Academia

About the Author

Yale Gilder Lehrman Center

The Gilder Lehrman Center strives to make a vital contribution to the understanding of slavery and its role in the development of the modern world. While the Center's primary focus has been on scholarly research, it also seeks to bridge the divide between scholarship and public knowledge by opening channels of communication between the scholarly community and the wider public. In collaboration with secondary schools, museums, parks, historical societies, and other related institutions, the Center facilitates a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery. Staff includes David W. Blight, David Brion Davis, David Spatz, Thomas Thurston and several visiting fellows.

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