Artists examine freedom through modern eyes

February 04, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The show that opened this weekend at the Maryland Historical Society and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture represents the combined efforts of one historian, three curators, 36 student interns, two artists-in-residence and seven commissioned artists.

The exhibit, At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, had its genesis more than a decade ago, when Mount St. Mary's College historian T. Stephen Whitman began exploring how blacks and whites living in the Chesapeake region during the years leading to the Civil War had opposed slavery.

"The society had this idea back then of doing an exhibition based on my research, and we were all very excited about it," Whitman recalls. "But somehow the project kept getting interrupted."

Things didn't really get off the ground until nearly six years later, when the historical society asked George Ciscle, curator-in-residence of the Maryland Institute College of Art, to oversee a show about slavery based on Whitman's research and the objects in the society's collection.

Ciscle, who co-founded Baltimore's Contemporary Museum in the late 1980s, countered with a novel suggestion: Could the project also include contemporary artworks that commented on the historical artifacts in the collection and reflected on their history?

"I proposed there were two ways of looking at this idea of freedom," Ciscle recalls, "from the perspective of both the past and the present."

Encouraged by the society's response, Ciscle agreed to take on the job, provided that he could develop the concept with students in his exhibition design seminar at MICA.

In the end, he brought together a diverse group of 36 students from MICA and Morgan State University and set them to work planning the exhibition in collaboration with historian Whitman and exhibition co-curators David Terry of the Lewis museum and Kym Rice of the historical society.

Over the next two years, the students helped research the history, design the installation and produce the publicity, educational and community outreach materials for the exhibition. As the project gathered momentum, the students invited quilter Joan Gaither and painter Arvie Smith to be artists in residence at the historical society and at the Lewis museum, respectively. Gaither and Smith each produced an original body of work that commented on the show's historical themes.

"The artists in residence were with us two years, which allowed them not only to have more time to produce a body of work but also to explore the historical research the students were gathering," Ciscle recalls. "So they really became part of the class. They came in to talk about what they were working on and the themes they wanted to address."

In addition to the two artists-in-residence, the students asked seven contemporary artists to contribute an individual artwork related to objects or themes explored in the exhibition.

Those works include haunting evocations of plantation life by Linda Day Clark, Shirley Hunt, Michael Platt and Maren Hassinger; beadwork by Joyce Scott; painting and sculpture by Whitfield Lovell and Sam Christian Holmes; and a harrowing installation recalling the era of Ku Klux Klan violence by William Christenberry.

"Slavery cast a long shadow," says co-curator Rice. "By including contemporary art that reflects on that history we wanted to show how depictions of enslaved people that began in the 19th century are still present in popular culture, and how even though people may not recognize them, they have a powerful psychological impact on us."

glenn.mcnatt @baltsun.com

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