CAMBRIDGE — The dark specter of American slavery haunts every stroke of Kara Walker’s frank, unflinching work. “U.S.A. Idioms,” a 12-by-15-foot tangle of horrors drawn in rough swipes of smoky graphite and ink, is the artist at her harrowing best, but Walker isn’t one simply for the exhuming of ghosts. The piece is at the heart of a small show of her work at the Harvard Art Museums, and it knits past sins with present outrage.
Walker made “U.S.A. Idioms” in 2017, in the aftermath of the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Va., and the murder of a protester that ensued. It bursts with sickening dread, a raw and gut-churning document of a society forever at war with itself. A tattered Confederate flag dangles from a ragged branch, while grotesquely cartoonish black figures suffer an array of indignities: A naked woman stumbles over a figure bent double to send her flying; another woman in apparent finery dangles from a ragged tree branch.
Walker’s work is built around a confrontation — a violent rejection of the idea that the past is past, and everything’s fine now. It is, of course, not, as the litany of racial aggressions, physical and otherwise, that continue to pile up every day make bluntly clear. Walker’s work shifts the legacies of slavery from a historical problem, or a southern problem, to a universal problem, living and present everywhere in this very moment.
It’s also a Harvard problem, and an unintended counterpoint a few blocks away makes it all the more conspicuous. Jonathan M. Square, a lecturer in the university’s history and literature department, has curated his own show on the subject. It gets right to the point. “Slavery in the Hands of Harvard,” he calls it, and what it might lack in museum-level formality — the exhibition creeps down a staircase to a foyer in the Center for Government and International Studies — it makes up for in its blunt engagement of a clear and present dilemma.
One piece, Noel Anderson’s “Renty Henry,” is as damning as any Walker herself might have made. A diptych, it matches a 19th-century daguerreotype of Renty, a Congolese-born slave, with the mug shot of the celebrated Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested after struggling with a jammed lock at his Cambridge home in 2009. Both images are contorted — both men captured with a distorting lens, their humanity deliberately obscured.
The juxtaposition alone says much about ingrained social prejudices and how deeply they run. But the piece also establishes a jarring lineage. Renty was photographed by J. T. Zealy, commissioned by the scientist Louis Agassiz for his notorious study of races and evolution, in which he had black subjects strip to be catalogued like specimens. For his unapologetic racism, Agassiz’s legacy is one of disgrace, but his legacy is also Harvard University’s: Across two centuries, Agassiz is Gates’s historical colleague at the school, an irony thickened by the scientist having been venerated for his work until his agenda, instead, finally brought shame. Though perhaps not enough: Harvard’s Agassiz House, which holds a theater, still bears his name.
Square, whose research is in fashion history and visual culture in the African disapora, links past to present with archival pieces here that connect the school directly with fortunes made on the backs of slave labor. A ledger for the class of 1726 shows Lewis Vassall paying his tuition in casks of sugar; the Vassalls’ fortune came in no small part from the slaves who worked their Jamaican sugar plantations.
Square has put this alongside a photograph of Walker’s monumental sphinx made of sugar, made in 2014 in New York’s Domino Sugar Refinery just prior to its demolition. “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,” she called it, so you can’t miss the point.
Square conceived his exhibition as a reckoning with hidden histories and their insistent presence in this very specific place — that “the legacy of slavery extends beyond objects preserved in Harvard’s archives and collections,” as he writes in his curatorial statement. But history so ugly can be restless, as Walker herself might say, a cancer that mutates and festers but continues to grow.
Harvard itself has been reckoning with those connections, though maybe not for nearly as long as it should. In 2016, then-Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust unveiled a plaque at Wadsworth House, the 1726 home built for then-president Benjamin Wadsworth, acknowledging four slaves who lived and worked there in the 18th century. The plaque is a tribute to “Titus & Venus,” “Juba & Bilhah” — no family names, an incomplete tribute to a group of people seen as less than human.
All four were owned by two Harvard presidents in succession, Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke. By the time Wadsworth House was built, the school was almost a century old, having been founded in 1636; Faust had said, at the plaque’s unveiling, that Harvard was “complicit in slavery from [its] earliest days,” making the tribute selective and incomplete at best. Even after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, Harvard continued to draw on the wealth of slave-owning entrepreneurs whose vast riches relied on their enslaved workforce.
Would it be overstating to say that a hefty chunk of the school’s wealth, and of schools all over the country, is the product of some indignity, somewhere? Maybe, but not by much. Wealth has a way of multiplying, subsuming unsavory means with gaudy ends. And so Harvard hosts symposium after symposium as public acts of contrition: “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History,” in 2017, and the upcoming “Vision and Justice,” hosted by the Radcliffe Institute, which “will consider the role of the arts in understanding the nexus of art, race, and justice, with a particular focus on the African-American experience.” (It takes place April 25-26.)
Both are loaded with outstanding scholars and important research. What, though, is the thing that sticks? Upstairs from Walker’s show, the Harvard Art Museums’ “The Arts in the Eighteenth–Century Atlantic World” galleries might offer a clue. Alongside historical portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — slave owners both — the museum invited African-American artists Allan Edmunds, Janet Taylor Pickett, and Hank Willis Thomas — whose winning work for the Boston Common memorial to Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. was announced last week — to install their own work. Their influence tears open the tidy historical narrative of great men doing great things, and truth spills out all over.
Thomas’s piece is re-creation of a poster advertising a slave auction in South Carolina in 1760, with the telling additions of a Shaquille O’Neal logo and the silhouette of Michael Jackson. It says the past is not the past, and black bodies remain commodities to be sold. Edmunds’s “200 years” conflates images of President Obama and King with the schematic of a slave ship, made on the 2008 occasion of Obama’s election, which also happened to be the 200-year anniversary of a ban on the importation of slaves. Pickett’s “Hagar’s Dress” invokes an Egyptian slave who, in the Bible, was impregnated by Abraham and then exiled; the dress floats like an apparition above figures shackled in a ship’s hold, tying together millennia of oppression.
However long the pieces remain, they’re not permanent. That will demand a deeper effort that unwinds the fabric of the institution itself. Oliver Wunsch, a curatorial fellow at the museum, has been reworking the museum’s wall labels to more accurately reflect the artworks they describe. His project’s debut is scheduled to arrive later this month, affixed to the wall next to John Singleton Copley’s 1767 portrait of Nicholas Boylston. A staple of the museum — its subject lolling in silken splendor, the archetype of the Boston Brahmin — the painting will hang where it always has. But next to it, instead of a tribute to Copley’s gifts or Boylston’s wealth, you’ll read something new: Copley was “a prominent white portraitist” in Colonial Boston, reads a draft yet to be finalized of the new wall label, and Boylston “amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.” The truth, they say, hurts. But at this point, it can’t be any more painful than keeping it quiet.
KARA WALKER: U.S.A. IDIOMS
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, ongoing. 617-495-9400, harvardartmuseums.org
SLAVERY IN THE HANDS OF HARVARD
At the Center for Government and International Studies, Harvard, 1737 Cambridge St., Cambridge, extended through April 4. 617-495-9114, cgis.fas.harvard.edu/art-exhibitsMurray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.