Who can reclaim history? Viewers can decide at Amon Carter’s new 'Emancipation' exhibit
Seated on the edge of his lawn chair, a glossy white figure wears casual summer clothing. He looks to the side, as if something has caught his attention, while one of his hands grabs at the chair’s arm.
The sculpture is just under two feet tall. He sits a few steps away from “The Freedman.” The two sculptures are in contrast to one another. One was made this year of white plastic and the other modeled in 1863 then cast in bronze. Each depicts a Black man, one in shorts, the other in a loincloth and shackles.
“Cargo shorts, fishing shirt, flip flops – really kind of democratically dressed, not fancy, something very accessible in his appearance,” artist Hugh Hayden said. “I just tried to make him a person that could exist today.”
For the Amon Carter Museum’s new exhibition “Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation,” Hayden and six other contemporary Black artists – Sadie Barnette, Alfred Conteh, Maya Freelon, Letitia Huckaby, Jeffrey Meris, and Sable Elyse Smith – were asked to respond to “The Freedman.” Modeled before the end of the Civil War in 1863 by John Quincy Adams Ward, the figure is one of the first bronze depictions of a Black figure. In the Carter’s copy of “The Freedman,” he has freed himself from his chains and a key releases the shackle on his wrist.
Maggie Adler is a staff curator at the Amon Carter. She worked with Maurita Poole to curate the exhibition around “The Freedman” because it stands apart from other works of the Civil War era.
“He [Ward]... had a Black man liberating himself rather than being liberated by Abraham Lincoln or some other great white emancipator,” Poole said. “He's not begging. He's not in despair. He's freed himself.”
Yet, Adler recalls talking about the bronze sculpture with a former employee at the Carter who grew up in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood.
“[They] said, ‘But Maggie, the shackles are still present.’ So, you know, how do we unpack that [the valences of a historical object to make it relevant to peoples’ lives today]?”
That exchange reflects the larger tension at work in the exhibition about who has the right to reclaim history and who doesn’t. On one hand, “Emancipation” is an effort to create a space where Black artists can challenge the way history has been told and bring new visitors to the museum. On the other hand, it exists in an environment where art institutions around the country continue to reckon with systemic power structures that have limited the Black community’s access.
“There’s just so much that needs to be reclaimed. So then there's a lot of pressure on one program,” said Lauren Cross, a scholar and curator at the Huntington Art Museum in California, who has a PhD in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies.
In the first alcove of the exhibition hangs seven pairs of wooden oval frames. In one of the pairs, the left panel shows swirling cursive writing layered over a photo of a young girl holding onto a baby in a bassinet. The right panel shows an empty staircase crowded by overgrown shrubs and barren trees.
The 3-foot tall series of hinged wooden panels are the size of windows. The frames are made of sturdy embroidery hoops. The photos are printed on cotton fabric.
“It's almost like those bifold frames that people would put in their house on top of a mantel or something with the grandma and grandpa’s picture in it,” said artist Letitia Huckaby.
The images in Huckaby’s “A Tale of Two Greenwoods” juxtapose Greenwood, Miss., where her father is from, and the Greenwood District in Oklahoma, the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The pieces were created for the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, believed to be the most significant moment of racial violence in U.S. history when white mobs killed hundreds of Black residents, burned homes and destroyed one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in the U.S.
Yet, Huckaby didn’t learn about the massacre in grade school or college.
“I went to high school in Oklahoma and took Oklahoma history and never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre until years after I had graduated college,” she said.
When visitors walk into the exhibition, one of the first pieces they’ll see is by Huckaby who is the only artist in “Emancipation” from Fort Worth. Huckaby has recently been doing the work of reclaiming history through the collaborative project space Kinfolk House, which she co-founded with her husband Sedrick Huckaby. Kinfolk is a hub for connecting the community with art in the 100-year-old home of Sedrick’s grandmother, located in the Black and Latinx neighborhood of Polytechnic.
“I believe that the best way to deal with the past is to not forget it and share it,” Huckaby said.
The Struggle of Reclamation
In the far back of the exhibition space, tucked away into a corner, the mold of a disembodied white head sits atop a perforated metal sheet on a cart. Suddenly, a motor turns on, screeching and grinding the chalky head on the metal sheet, leaving a growing pile of dust beneath it.
The piece, “A still tongue keeps a wise head,” by artist Jeffrey Meris, is one of two kinetic sculptures by the artist in the exhibit. Meris said the inspiration for the work came from an experience he had at a New York City subway station.
“I swiped my card and the turnstile said please swipe again. I swiped a second time and the turnstile said please swipe again. And on the third time, the machine read insufficient funds,” Meris said. “I knew that I had money on my card, and so I decided to jump the turnstile.”
Police came after him, and gave him a $100 citation.
“On the ticket my height was listed as 6 foot 7, and my weight as 250 pounds. I’ve never been either of those things,” Meris said. “I’m 6 foot 2 and I weigh 180 pounds.”
The anatomical representations in Meris’ kinetic sculptures are plaster castings of a real human figure – his own.
“It felt as if there were these mythologies that were being constructed around my body. And so essentially, these sculptures respond to this narrative,” Meris said. “I'm not sure I would feel comfortable putting someone else's likeness through that kind of torture and rigor and sort of violence.”
Through his art, Meris reclaims his own body from a figure that has been misconstructed by the white gaze. It echoes the premise of the exhibit, which similarly attempts to reclaim the historical narrative about the end of slavery. But depicting trauma and violence can be difficult to navigate for both the artists tasked with representing it, and the institutions that choose to showcase it for an audience.
Cross, an art historian and curator at the Huntington Museum in California, said in the past, museums have fallen short when exhibitions have been created “...without understanding the pain that certain communities are going through and how putting certain stories about those said communities in the museum, without their input or without anyone who really had an understanding, like how painful and hurtful that that would have been.”
Maurita Poole, the director and curator of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University, has that understanding. The Carter invited Poole to co-curate the exhibition due to her focus on 20th century African American art and the American South.
“I want it to really have us think through the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation as an institution based in the American South,” Poole said.
Poole was particularly interested in seeing how southern Black artists would challenge mainstream portrayals of the South that, in her view, don’t feel as complex and nuanced as they should be. Artists like Letitia Huckaby.
For Huckaby, one of the biggest challenges in making “A Tale of Two Greenwoods” was navigating the deep generational trauma of the Greenwood community in Tulsa.
“There's a lot of pain and frustration in that area and that's mostly why I didn't photograph people when I was in Tulsa,” Huckaby said. “I did not want to participate in the continued trauma to them.”
Huckaby said the Tulsa community felt like the world wanted to tell the story of the massacre. After decades of the event being overlooked, suddenly people were talking about what had happened. But she said the community felt, and still feels, like no one wanted to actually help the Greenwood residents.
Both Huckaby and the exhibition try to examine emancipation with nuance. Curators juxtaposed historical works with contemporary pieces, invited artists with a variety of experiences and highlighted themes like Black joy and agency. However, exhibitions on Black experiences have a tendency to focus on slavery, oppression and trauma.
Cross said it's complicated creating exhibitions that reflect on painful history. Some in the Black community may be eager to talk about slavery, others may not.
“You want to be conscientious of the fact that there's going to be someone who's tired of slavery, you know? Because that's the narrative, right? ‘I'm tired of hearing about it. I don't want to think about it. It's painful. I want something new,’” Cross said. “I think that our communities are dealing with enough already. And so, I think that you need to be more mindful about the images that we put out to the world, and I think it does pose a different type of challenge for artists to kind of think that way.”
It’s a challenge Meris has been mindful of. He said he’s interested in exploring art that stretches beyond trauma and violence.
“How do we move from a narrative where Black equals subjugation, or Black equals powerless, or Black equals poverty or Black equals pain?” Meris said.
Reclamation Moving Forward
In one corner of the exhibition, a large wall is covered entirely in rows of colorful tissue paper, dyed with different patterns in blue, pink and green ink. A large structure about 11 feet tall leans across the opposite wall, made up entirely of the same vibrantly dyed tissue paper, some of it loosely draped across the structure, flowing gently back and forth as people walk beneath it.
The large installation is Maya Freelon’s “Fool Me Once…” which is one of the two site-specific pieces she created for the exhibition.
Freelon’s piece is a sharp contrast to the others. For one, it's an immersive installation that feels boundless. It’s also bursting with colors and textures. The museum strategically placed Freelon’s work in the exhibition to give visitors a place to pause.
“It's like a breath of fresh air, like a safe space,” Freelon said. “I do feel like peace and joy and love are all critical to healing, particularly Black joy.”
Throughout her career, Freelon has often had to push back against norms that feel elitist and segregated.
“I had professors, white male professors, tell me, ‘Your work is too beautiful. It looks like hotel art. No one's ever going to like this. You need to be making art about issues,’” Freelon said. “I never shy away from my identity and my history and culture in my work, even though it's abstract.”
Her ultimate goal is for other young Black girls to see art as accessible through her pieces. Before she agreed to participate in the exhibition, it was important to Freelon that the museum made that a priority as well.
“One of the first questions that I had when I spoke with the team that was organizing it was, how are you reaching out to communities that look like me to get them in the exhibition?” she said.
Accessibility and reclamation go hand in hand, according to Cross. If the Black community doesn’t have access to spaces or aren’t invited to the table, they can’t connect to the artwork and history it tells.
The Carter has made efforts to make the museum more accessible through film discussions, community events and workshops. For “Emancipation,” The Carter is hosting a workshop that will help educators teach their students how to use art to understand history. The museum is also hosting a free program for neurodivergent adults in April.
As a free museum, school children and the general public can visit the Carter at no cost. However, most museums in the U.S. don’t offer free admission, according to a survey by ARTnews.
Cross said one way museums can engage with the Black community is by partnering with local organizations.
“There can be collaboration, you know, culturally-based institutions with so-called mainstream institutions, where I feel like those are interesting areas of potential that probably aren't tapped into enough,” she said.
The Carter is partnering with the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society which has worked to recognize Black history and culture in Fort Worth since the 70s. They’ve partnered with The Carter for over a decade.
Currently, the genealogical society is working with The Carter to bring students into the “Emancipation” exhibition for the Lenora Rolla Summer Arts Program. Students will spend time at both the Carter and the society's Lenora Rolla Heritage Center and Museum, where they’ll participate in workshops and create their own art.
However, exhibitions can often be inaccessible to marginalized communities in other ways like transportation.
“The cultural district that we have now, transportation is an issue for some people. So there's some inequality right there. How do you get these people that live in Stop Six, that live in Mosier Valley, that live in Garden of Eden? How do you get them there if they don't have cars?” said Sanders-Wise, executive director of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society .
Still, the society and other local organizations are struggling to get the same funding and recognition as established institutions in Fort Worth’s main cultural district, which sees over 2 million visitors a year. It’s an inequity faced bynonprofits serving Black communities across the country.
“So funding is an issue when it comes to museums of color. We don't have endowments on the scale of an Amon Carter or the Modern or the Kimbell. We don't have that,” Sanders-Wise said.
Back on the second floor of the Amon Carter sits the glossy white figure of Hugh Hayden’s “American Dream.”
It’s as if he’s about to stand up. Or, depending on the viewer, is unable to fully relax into his seat.
Placed outside of the museum, one could imagine him at a summer party or a soccer game. Perhaps he’s about to sit back and relax. Maybe he’s leaning forward, riveted by conversation with others perched at the edge of their seats.
“Part of this notion of the American dream is choosing to be a version of who you want to be hopefully,” Hayden said.
The figure’s head is cocked to the side, looking into the distance as if he’s uncertain what future lies ahead. He’s physically in a moment of transition, an embodiment of the work that needs to be done.
“Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation” is on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth through July 9. The exhibition will tour in three other cities: New Orleans; Williamstown, Mass.; and Savannah, Ga. Find more information at www.cartermuseum.org.
Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.