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NYC exhibit explores legacy of slavery

A new contemporary art show examines brutal past.
/ Source: The Associated Press

What's so historical about a tower made of telephone books -- especially one topped with a sign made out of neon lights?

Perhaps not much, but that's the point for organizers of a new contemporary art show that has an unusual setting _ the New-York Historical Society. The show features artists examining the impact of slavery and is a perfect fit for the institution, curators say, a way to make history more, well, contemporary.

"There is really no better way to bring home history to people than to demonstrate its impact on our everyday lives," said Louise Mirrer, president of the Historical Society.

The show "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery" opened at the museum last week and runs through Jan. 7.

It features 41 works from 32 artists, including several created just for this show, and is intended to serve as a bridge between two historical shows on slavery. The first, "Slavery in New York," closed in March after a successful run. The second, "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War," opens in November.

"The presentation really will force visitors to think differently about slavery," Mirrer said. "In the works of contemporary artists, you cannot think of slavery as something that happened in the past."

In one piece commissioned for the show, Joseph Lewis III created a tower out of telephone books, meant as a representation of the millions of Africans who didn't survive the brutal passage to the Americas. With mirrors on the floor and ceiling, it looks like the tower goes on forever.

At the top, in neon signage, are the names "Mandela" and "Anne Frank." Lewis connected them after finding out that former South African President Nelson Mandela had read Frank's diary during his imprisonment.

The connection of the two names to each other and to the book tower is meant to show the commonality and persistence of persecution, from slavery to the Holocaust to apartheid, Lewis said.

"After so many centuries, we still try to resolve our differences by trying to destroy other cultures," he said.

Slavery beyond the U.S.
Some of the pieces use material from the museum, such as "Liberte/Liberty" from Fred Wilson, which incorporates a section of the metal balustrade that used to be at Federal Hall, where George Washington became president in 1789. On the back side of the piece are slave tags and shackles, showing how America had issues with slavery and freedom even as it was gaining its own liberation from England.

While many artists focus on slavery in America, the exhibit also has contributions from the Caribbean and Africa. Among the predominantly black roster are some white artists as well.

Those were conscious decisions to expand the discussion of slavery beyond its role in the United States and past the idea that it was only the concern of African-Americans, said Lowery Stokes Sims, president of The Studio Museum and lead curator of the show.

"That was really important to show, that this theme is not the exclusive concern of people of color," she said.

Ellen Driscoll, one of the white artists, agreed. "If you are born with white skin in America, you inherit a kind of position that was built on the backs of the slavery system," she said.

Driscoll's piece, a mixed-media installation called "The Loophole of Retreat," lets viewers imagine the life of Harriet Jacob, who hid in an attic for seven years as a fugitive slave.

Mirrer acknowledged that the show was an unusual step for the museum, but said it was important to do and was hopeful it would be met with a positive response.

"Only by balancing the past and the present can we make the case that history is important today," she said.