“re:mancipation” gives us new ways of looking at our nation and freedom

The exhibit will be up at the Chazen Museum of Art through June 25.
Photo by Hannah Keziah Agustin. Image description: A view of the “re:mancipation” exhibition shows several visitors walking amongst paintings, sculptures and other pieces in a gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art. Behind them is a large wall on which an image of a pair of hands weaving a quilt is projected.

The exhibit will be up at the Chazen Museum of Art through June 25.

What does freedom look like? Re:mancipation, on display through June 25 at the Chazen Museum of Art, offers us an array of iterations in response to this question. A multimedia body of work grounded in history, research, and community, this exhibition was created as a response to Emancipation Group, a sculpture Thomas Ball created in 1876, representing a moment in the United States post-Civil War when people were reckoning with the sociopolitical realities of their time. As a multifaceted project, re:mancipation also includes a documentary and a website that provides people with an intimate look at the project’s imperative to address social justice and equity through multiple modes of artistic interpretation.

The best-known version of the Emancipation Group stands in Washington, D.C. and was dedicated in 1876, but multiple versions of the sculpture were produced around the country—three of which are included in the current exhibit. In the sculpture, Abraham Lincoln stands with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand—a law issued in 1863 that ordered enslaved people in rebellious territories to be released and made free. Meanwhile, a newly freed slave cowers under Lincoln’s left hand. Lincoln is clothed, while the slave is naked. Lincoln stands with his head high, while the crouching slave balances by a fist on the ground looks up at him. This image of liberation still cannot escape from the ghost of its broken shackles.

Image description: One version of Thomas Ball's "Emancipation Group" sculpture, depicting Abraham Lincoln standing over a freed slave.
“Emancipation Group.” Photo courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art. Image description: One version of Thomas Ball’s “Emancipation Group” sculpture, depicting Abraham Lincoln standing over a freed slave.

It is a paradox—rich and nuanced. “This history reinforces strong beliefs about racial hierarchy in the United States,” says Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen. The exhibit started when the museum staff thought about all of the historic objects in the collection and the museum’s role and responsibility to bring greater complexity and nuance to the way artworks are interpreted. 

The exhibition includes three versions of the sculpture: two marble versions—one of them, dated 1873, came from the Chazen’s own collection—in addition to an 1865 bronze version from the Colby College Museum of Art. “Engaging dialogue about difficult situations can be easier when grounded in the same object,” says Gilman. When one observes the things in front of them, it creates an entry point for a conversation that is a part of the larger discourse.

The different elements of the sculpture went through a deep scan and were 3D-printed to put around the original piece like a constellation. The recent technology was used as a tool to help people engage personally with the object no matter their background. Whether it be through visual engagement with the sculptures and the paintings, or diving into historical facts and cultural lineages across continents, there are many ways to explore this project. Because of this, Gilman encourages people to inhabit the gallery multiple times, to spend time both inside and outside of it, and to think and consider the ways in which the exhibit unfolds the richness and complexities of Black history.

The exhibition’s strength stems from the narratives that counteract the narrative imposed by Emancipation Group. It was led by Sanford Biggers, who was interested in doing a counter-monument to Ball’s version of the Emancipation Group. In his response, Frederick Douglass stands. He is “lifting the veil” from a sitting Lincoln. Biggers’ version has yet to be unveiled. Biggers, DJ Rich Medina, and their musical collaborations will also perform at the event. In addition, the spring series of the podcast Meet Me At The Chazen will be all about re:mancipation, and include interviews with various project participants.

On top of that, UW-Madison students and community members have responded. This makes the museum a more diverse, inclusive, and less homogeneous space. Dr. Baron Kelly of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama played Douglass in Necessary Sacrifices, a radio play by Richard Helleson that dramatized an interaction between Lincoln and the freedman. Wildcat Ebony Brown’s poem “Dear Abraham Lincoln” addresses the president for the wrong he has done to Black people. She was among the many artists, musicians, and activists invited by the MASK Consortium and the Chazen to respond to the Emancipation Group. The richness of the exhibition came from the voices both inside and outside the community. Their responses projected on the back wall of the exhibition include music, film, and dance. “We wanted to invite a really broad group of artists in their own medium,” says Gilman.

At the end of the exhibition, people are invited to respond to the question of freedom. What does freedom look like to us? How can we collectively achieve it? Through drawing and writing, it asks the audience to contribute to the communal quilt. We’re invited to actively engage in the object and be a part of the conversation. “Although this exhibition is the most public milestone at the moment, it is not the end of the process,” Gilman says. “It has grown and changed in a way that [the team] could not have anticipated.” The space gives people the opportunity to think critically about the narratives they have accepted as objective truth, to challenge them, and see them with fresh eyes.

A series of multicolored drawings are shown hanging against a blue gallery wall.
Participants are invited to “re:act.” Photo by Hannah Keziah Agustin. Image description: A series of multicolored drawings are shown hanging against a blue gallery wall.

This makes me think back to the Emancipation Group and the narratives that America was built on—how we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this great country. This is the American promise. However, when we take a long, hard look at these ideals, they can take on a different meaning—much like Ball’s sculpture. The white man is an oppressor rather than a savior. The freedman is not freed. The beautiful thing about art museums is how they allow people to look at the same object together, and lead us into productive discussions about what it means to truly be free. Above all, we are all invited to respond and speak our own truth, unafraid and liberated.

To view the virtual exhibit walkthrough, go to this website. Watch the exhibit’s video here.

Correction: The initial version of this article initially confused the chronology of several versions of the “Emancipation Group,” misidentified the author of “Necessary Sacrifices,” and listed an unveiling date for Biggers’ version of the sculpture. These references have been corrected, and an unveiling date for Biggers’ version has yet to be set.

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