Reflecting on Freedom

June 30, 2020
Index Magazine

Reflecting on Freedom

Printed on a sheet of white paper with rough edges and visible paper fibers are the following words in black ink: “To Be Sold on board the Ship Bance-Island, on tuesday the 6th/ of May next, at Ashley-Ferry ; a choice/ cargo of about 250 fine healthy/ Negroes,/ just arrived from the/ Windward & Rice Coast./ —The utmost care has/ already been taken, and/ shall be continued, to keep them free from/ the least danger of being infected with the/ Small-Pox, no boat having been on/ board, and all other communication with/ people from Charles-Town prevented./ Austin, Laurens, & Appleby./ N.B. Full one Half of the above Negroes have had the Small-Pox in their own Country.” To the left of this text is a silhouette of a figure dunking a basketball (a recognizable image of Shaquille O’Neal); to the right a silhouette of a figure dancing (a recognizable image of Michael Jackson).
2018.33.60 Hank Willis Thomas, American, To Be Sold, 2009. Laser-cut relief print on handmade paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2018.33.60. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

On June 19, 1865, Union troops marched into Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, bringing news to enslaved African Americans that they were free. And yet the promises of Emancipation, and of the constitutional amendments that followed, have not been fully realized. While Black Americans have made extraordinary achievements over the intervening century and a half, racial discrimination, terror, and violence continue to be leveled against them.

Seeking to foster continued discussion around this longstanding and ongoing injustice—in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others—this final installment in our three-part series considers a selection of works by modern and contemporary Black artists who, over the last few decades, have addressed the history of systemic racism and the inextricable relationship of past and present. In print and in paint, these artists reflect on the Black American experience by synthesizing historical narratives, popular culture, and personal stories. 


With the print pictured above, made during a residency at the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia in 2009, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas re-creates a 1760 advertisement for a South Carolina sale of 250 enslaved African men, women, and children. Thomas reproduces the ad’s text verbatim but replaces its schematic renderings of African figures with the silhouettes of two modern celebrities: Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jackson. This provocative juxtaposition of past and present, enslavement and success, raises questions about the legacy of slavery and the continued commodification of Black bodies. In connection with works like this one, Thomas has remarked on the spectacle of the enslaved, abused, and lynched in relation to that of the athletes and performers on whose labor multibillion-dollar industries rely. At the same time, this print prompts consideration of the accomplishments and agency of individuals like O’Neal—the silhouette is his logo, which he trademarked while still in college. The work stands both as an acknowledgment of Black achievement and as an indictment of a society that still fails to value all Black lives. 

To hear Hank Willis Thomas speak on the intersection of art, race, and justice, watch a conversation with him at Radcliffe’s Vision & Justice program in April 2019.  

Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow, Division of European and American Art 

Mining the Past  

Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her cut-paper silhouettes and large-scale drawings that evoke the brutal legacies of slavery and the violence wielded against Black people. In this monotype series, she investigates how Black culture has been formed, historicized, and appropriated over the 20th century, while also interrogating her own fame and position within the lineage of “Black Genius.” (In 1997, Walker became the youngest person to receive a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”) In this series of textual prints, Walker tackles the legacy of notable African American women such as Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Louise Beavers.  

Augusta Savage, the subject of the print seen here, was among these historical figures. In 1921, she moved from the South to Harlem, where, after achieving moderate success as a sculptor, she won a scholarship to study in France. But when the all-white, all-male American selection committee discovered she was Black, they rescinded the offer. In response, Savage published an open letter in the New York World: “I hear so many complaints to the effect that Negroes do not take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them. Well, one of the reasons why more of my race do not go in for higher education is that as soon as one of us gets his head above the crowd there are millions of feet ready to crush it back again.” Her experience moved her toward activism, focusing on equity and visibility for her marginalized peers: in 1932, she founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and later, with the support of the Works Projects Administration, directed the Harlem Community Center. She championed Black artists—including Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis, and Romare Bearden—providing them the space in which to learn, produce, and exhibit art.  

The Gestural Abstraction of Thornton Dial, Sr. 

In this painting, Thornton Dial, Sr., layers found materials and pigment to create a complex interplay of patterns, collapsed space, and symbolic references. The discordant coral paint outlines a stylized representation of a turtle, limbs outstretched and reaching above the outlines of two faces, which are reduced to their most identifiable features. Of this painting’s imagery, Dial said: “White folks swim like a turtle, black folks crawl like a turtle,” referring to the unjust circumstances into which Black Americans are born. Dial himself was born in 1928 on a former cotton plantation where his family worked as sharecroppers. Although Dial, like many Black Americans in the Jim Crow South, had little access to formal education, he later incorporated his industrial knowledge as a carpenter and steel worker into the construction of his sculptures and assemblages.   

When his gestural, expressive assemblages became known to the art world in the 1980s, they were compared to works by canonical postwar figures such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning. Dial, however, created art not in dialogue with or emulation of these white male artists, but rather in response to the political and material realities of his life in the South. The presence of his work in our museums today, complicated by our own histories of colonialism and institutional racism, serves to challenge entrenched art historical categorizations between “fine art” and “outsider” or “folk art,” introducing more complex histories of art in the United States.   

Lauren Hanson, Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art