Visualizing Abolition and Freedom

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In this block, the artist has chosen to highlight a commonly used symbol of the abolitionist movement; a slave kneeling with chained wrists held up, begging for his freedom. Created by members of the Clapham Sect of the Church of England in 1787, the image was so popularly consumed, historians have referred to it as a “pièce de resistance” of the campaign. However, the image is controversial to some because of the subordinate and sanitized representation it gives of slavery. Rather than portraying a reality of enslavement, torture, oppression, and resistance, the image appealed to the abolitionist ideals of morality, virtue, and truth. With this block, the artists urges their audience to grapple with the impact that historically sanitized images of slavery can cause, especially on younger generations. By portraying the slave as begging his oppressors for his freedom and humility, the image has replicated the very hierarchy it is trying to combat. Nonetheless, the image is contextualized with historical importance from the role it played in the abolitionist movement. By re-assessing images of abolition and rebellion, the artist urges people to contemplate popular controversies about the glorification of confederate monuments and the legacy of slavery in shaping American national identity.

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The center image of this block provides the viewer with a window into the world of Haiti before the revolution. Framed by lucious trees, this view shows the rolling hills and lush landscape of the island, including an expansive plantation near the bottom of the frame. In the foreground stands a muscular plantation worker, squinting up at the viewer from beneath his straw hat. This image is one of many prints and paintings that were circulated in Europe in the 18th century depicting the colonization of the island of Hispaniola, one of many Caribbean islands whose people were enslaved by French and British colonizers for the mass production of sugarcane and molasses. As we peer into this scene, we are put into the shoes of the Europeans who confronted slavery and racism from thousands of miles away. Some endorsed this violent exploitation and commended the officers deemed brave enough to consort with savages, while others silently disapproved, and even fewer spoke out in opposition. Today, as we confront issues of privilege and race in different and more nuanced ways, we must stop and think: are we content to quietly oppose, or is it our duty to speak out against racism and violence? As artists, activists, and students we must push aside the lush leaves and trees and see racism and oppression for what it really is.

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This block memorializes the pain and violence inflicted on black bodies in both Haiti and America during the time of slavery. The artist has placed drawings of an active foot and hand, body parts most commonly immobilized by chains and ropes during slavery, at the center of this piece, and surrounded them with leaves, flowers, keys, broken chains, drops of blood, and long-lost pieces of jewelry, items evocative of a past left behind and destroyed at the hands of slavery. These items appear to rotate in a circle around the foot and hand caught in the moments before taking a step or lifting the page of a book, giving the piece an element of movement and the feeling of ceaseless change. This piece encourages the viewer to remember the terribleness of physical bondage and enslavement, yet it also celebrates the liberation from these chains and the physical freedom many of us have come to take for granted. Furthermore, it reminds us to always keep moving towards a brighter future no matter what we may have left behind.

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This block aims to capture the ironic nature of the institution of slavery. This block includes an image of slaves on a plantation, framed by various found objects. The artist has incorporated a crucifix into the design, signifying the use of christianity as a means justify the enslavement of bodies. The image conjures a feeling of darkened antiquity and tarnish, further accentuated by rusty keys and other metal objects which surround the photograph, alluding to how the people in the image were utilized for the purpose of profit and industry with no attention paid to their human needs. When we consider visualizing freedom we must consider the nexus of capital and material and its effects on the enslaved body, a topic unfortunately still relevant in capitalist America today.

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Unlike many of the blocks in this piece, this block is not tied to an individual story or person but rather attempts to show an idea. The block is centered around an image of a head both human and alien, evoking emotions such as pain, fear, and sadness. These are the emotions associated with colonialism and violence, of oppression and disease, and were likely felt by Haitians at the time of the revolution. While this musical being appears cry and mourn, it also inspires a sense of power and awe in the viewer, similar to the feeling of power that many Haitians were beginning to sense as the revolution took hold of Haiti. This block, while more abstract than others, contributes to the abolitionist story by recognizing the role of terror and chaos, while representing the relationship between pain and strength, fear and power.

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This block is a visualization of the clash between the cosmic forces of nature and the institutions of humankind. This encounter was especially apparent during the revolution in Haiti; the very concept of slavery and the violence that grew from it defies nature in every way. The plantation economy which ran off the energy of slaves turned a lush tropical landscape into flat planes of torture. Confrontation between armed forces over these plantations wreaked havoc on the earth and the destroyed the natural landscape. In this block an image of a classical Greco-Roman building, representing the institutions of a “more civilized” people, collides with the cosmic forces of earth and nature. These forces are commonly called upon in Haitian Vodou ceremonies, making this collision not just one between man and nature but also between ideologies and philosophies.

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The story of Haiti since 1492, in broad strokes, is the story of export-oriented exploitation and the politics that come with that commerce. The extinction of native peoples due to hard labor, and the clearing of the land to produce sugar and other export crops, is marked by the totem in the lower-left corner of this block. Coins also contribute historical significance to this block, serving as markers for the economic interests of various global powers in this small nation and the interaction of Haiti’s history with neighbors in the New World. In some cases, these former colonies started their revolutions with support from Haiti. Currency also captures historical events, people, and cultural relations between nations. Jean-Pierre Boyer, Charlemagne Peralte, and monarchs of France are displayed. Some coins have specific years or are from periods of historical significance to the development of Haiti.

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When confronting the reality of plantation slavery in America, aspects of life which seemed normal in the early 1880’s are often difficult to conceptualize today. In this block, the artist calls attention to the tradition of child raising, in which slaves were given the task of nursing and raising their master’s progeny. It seems counter-intuitive that one could believe a slave so unworthy of human dignity, yet at the same time entrust them with the life of their child. In this block, a portrait of a slave with their master’s baby is framed by a pattern comprised of enlarged images of a human cell, encouraging a contemplation of the hypocrisies present in the theoretical foundations of slavery, including the supposed biological and intellectual inferiority of black people. Most often, slaves bore responsibilities foundational to the prosperity and functioning of their owners; they were worthy of motherhood but not the recognition of full humanity. By featuring a female-bodied slave in this block, the artist also pushes the viewer to contemplate the highly gendered nature of slave work and how it reveals inconsistencies in the theoretical foundations of racial superiority in America.

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This block is comprised of a document listing registered soldiers of the First Regiment of Iowa Volunteers, a predominately black enlistment fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Scattered around the names of enlisted men, the artist has included pieces of metallic jewellery, linking the First Regiment of Iowa Volunteers to the Haitian Revolution. In this piece, the institution of slavery is represented by fragments of broken earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. The artist aimed to capture the harsh brutality of the struggle against slavery and racism, experienced by both Haitian revolutionaries in 1791 and also by members of the First Regiment of Iowa Volunteers in 1863. At the same time, some objects (such as the metallic pencil sharpener) are intended to portray the idea that the world is changeable and can be made better, a homage to the sacrifices made by the enlisted men of the First Regiment. This block parallels the struggle experienced in Haiti with the struggle experienced in the United States, and aims to show the relevancy and tangibility of these events even in today’s world. While the struggles of Haiti and the United States are very different, similarities between the two stories show the interconnectedness of history.

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“A Great Grandson of Slaves Leads Grinnell College” reads the title of an interview on Iowa Public Radio with current Grinnell College President Raynard Kington. This block is centered around an image of Kington’s ancestors, forcing viewers to contemplate the journey from slavery to abolition. Though the 13th amendment may have legally abolished slavery in 1865, the path towards freedom has yet to be fully realized. To this day, the legacy of slavery is a prominent and undeniable feature of American institutions and identity. In this block, the artist used many embellishments and layered images to represent the many lenses and layers through which we examine our complex and overlapping histories. In some instances, stories obscure and silence others. In other cases, they bring new dimensions to known histories and help us re-examine our past. The artist’s hope is that this artwork will lead viewers to examine what lenses they might ascribe to their personal histories relating to slavery and abolition.

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This block depicts two parallel scenes: the photograph on the right captures a class of school children, and the photo on the left shows a group of people at some celebration. The figures in the photo on the left are wearing formal attire even as some kneel in the grass in the foreground. Is this really a celebration? If so, what are they celebrating? Although it is difficult to ascertain who these people are and why their photographs were being taken, the two photographs call to mind the nonstop progression of generational change. The polka-dots, stars, and diamond-shaped flower petals appear to rotate around the two photographs in a circular motion, creating the sensation of a whirlpool in constant revolution. In what ways do generational shifts impact how we visualize freedom today?

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This block was created to represent the environmental turmoil experienced by Haiti since the introduction of sugarcane to the island over 400 years ago. The images in this block are layered in resin, with some images appearing farther from the viewer than others. The layers progress in relation to time, representing different stages of the Haitian environment. The bottom layer of the block is adorned with flowers, referencing the botanical beauty that could be witnessed on the island of Hispaniola before the plantation system took root. Introduction of sugarcane to the island is represented by the Gran Bwa veve, a religious symbol representing the loa Gran Bwa, a Vodou loa responsible for the health of herbs, trees, and other inhabitants of the land. In this block, the artists have chosen to include the Gran Bwa veve to represent an opposing force to the influx of sugarcane. After introducing the two opposing forces, the artists added images of malignant bacteria on the bottom left to symbolize the destruction that sugarcane caused on the island. The bacteria also represents the infectious nature of both sugarcane and plantation slavery, calling attention to how both quickly overtook the island and its people.

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In this block, the artists have chosen to call attention to the experiences of children during the Haitian Revolution. Two of of Toussaint L'Ouverture’s sons, named Isaac and Saint-Jean, are featured prominently in this piece. Growing up with a famous and powerful father, these children enjoyed many more luxuries than most Haitian children, for the two boys were fortunate enough to be sent to France in 1797 to receive education in foreign languages and the arts. However, even relocation to Europe did not save the boys from meeting the same ill fate which met the other nine of L’Ouverture’s children, many of whom died before their father. Above the portraits of the L’Ouverture sons, the artists have included a depiction of children harvesting sugar cane in a pre-revolution Haiti. These children were exploited under the relentless control of plantation owners, seen here in suit jackets and straw hats, who robbed children of their childhood, education, families, and often their lives.

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At the center of the block is a nineteenth century map of the Grinnell College campus, showing familiar locations such as Mac Field and the Forum. To the right of the campus, a compass made of dorm keys shows the cardinal directions, transforming the block itself into a map and therefore situating Grinnell both geographically in an the context of a constantly evolving world. Images of Herrick Chapel and Steiner Hall, as well as the famous Louis Sullivan Jewel box bank, are also included in this block to bring familiar scenes into the piece. Embellished with metallic sequins that drift across the block like leaves floating across campus, this block serves to bring the wider story of this installation closer to the Grinnellian’s reality.

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This block honors Mary Touvestre, a freed slave who risked her life to protect the Union army from a disastrous naval attack. This block includes an image of the plans for the Confederate ship The Merrimack, plans that were once stolen by Mary Touvestre, a housekeeper for a Confederate engineer in Norfolk. After hearing the engineer speak about the importance of the ship, Touvestre recognized the danger it imposed upon the Union’s naval forces who were blockading Norfolk’s supplies from Europe, imploring her to steal the plans for the ship and embark on a 195 mile trip through enemy lines to inform the Department of the Navy in Washington of the impending danger. In this block, the danger posed by the ship is highlighted by nails embedded around the head of the warship. The tangling string that weaves through the block depicts the length of the journey, and the risk shouldered by a black woman traveling on foot through Confederate lands. Touvestre report urged officials to speed up plans for constructing an ironclad ship for the Union army, saving them from an ugly attack for which they would not have been prepared. If Touvestre had never provided the intelligence, the USS Merrimac would have been given several more unchallenged weeks to quite possibly disrupt the Union’s blockade of Norfolk. The purpose of this block is to celebrate and honor the countless slaves and freed blacks living within Confederate regions who risked their lives to serve the Union army. In this piece, we also recognize the wider sacrifices made by black people to support a country that has continued to deny them humanity and safety.

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In this block the artists decided to honor Hannibal Kershaw and recognize the legacy he left on Grinnell during his time here as a student. Hannibal Kershaw was the first black student to graduate from Grinnell College in the early 19th century. The Iowa College Newsletter called Kershaw “an earnest, conscientious student, a fluent society speaker, and a man whom all respected for his high moral and religious character.” After graduating from Grinnell, he became a member of the South Carolina legislature and was also a teacher and a minister. Although Kershaw passed away only 4 years after leaving Grinnell, his memory is honored in the East Campus hall named for him, and now also in this piece of art. In this block, the artists have included a photograph of Kershaw along with the commemorative sign on Kershaw Hall, as well as keys and screws to symbolize not only the dorm, but also Kershaw’s commitment to building respectful race relations at the college and the symbolic doors he opened as the first black graduate of Grinnell. The artists also included a bird in flight, meant to remind viewers that while loved ones may be gone, their legacy will be remembered forever. Lastly, a piece of twine placed between these images reminds us of how connected the struggles of people of color are all over the world. Although Kershaw never set foot in Haiti, he certainly knew the pain and legacy of slavery and colonization, and felt the burn of racism even in Grinnell.

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This block emerged from an invitation to participate in a campus-wide reflection on race, revolution, and artist’s place in our troubled social context. The ominous and powerful insect, the central image in this piece, is based on Alejo Carpentier's magical realist novel on the Haitian revolution, The Kingdom of this World. Is the insect colonialism? The revolution? It confronts the viewer with questions: Why don’t we know our own history, and why are we so afraid to teach it? In the same way that the insect confronts the viewer in this piece, we must confront our history and the ways in which it impacts our lives today. Although the insect hovers over us, threatening to destroy our memories, histories, and futures, we continue to coexist with it, allowing it to grow and respond to our changing conditions. The layering, movement, and sedimentation of the composition is meant to evoke the oceans, currents, and the troubling depths of race as “natural” yet at the same time constructed, still powerful and unsettling. It is a sea constantly troubled, whether we are aware or not. This block, and this installation as a whole, acts as an invitation to calmly evaluate ourselves in relation to our histories and education, without drowning in the waves.

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John Brown is well-known for his abolitionist exploits throughout the antebellum United States. From leading armed groups in the Bleeding Kansas crisis to his near-successful raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, Brown made clear his staunch beliefs that slavery must be abolished and that violent insurrection was the only way to accomplish that goal. Eventually, these beliefs resulted in his downfall, as he was captured at Harpers Ferry by a United States Army regiment and later executed. What’s less commonly known about John Brown is his connection to Grinnell. While helping escaped slaves move along the Underground Railroad Brown slept at the home of J.B. Grinnell, founder of the town and supporter of the College. A photograph of this house is depicted in the lower right corner of this block, with an arrow pointing to the room where Brown stayed during his visit. Also included are two newspaper clippings from the Des Moines Register documenting Brown’s time in Iowa, including the story of a tense standoff in Iowa City shortly after he left Grinnell. At the center of the block is a portrait of J.B. Grinnell himself, found in the Grinnell College Archives. The words “John Brown’s Body” near the right edge of the block are a reference to the eponymous marching song sung by the Union Army to commemorate Brown’s sacrifice, the melody of which would go on to be reused in the now well-known Battle Hymn of the Republic. Like those who rebelled in Haiti, Brown believed that grassroots revolution could be an effective weapon against the institution of slavery and worked to advance equality for people of African descent.

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At the center of this block, a cut-out photograph of a domestic pig is superimposed over a woodcut print showing pigs in a farmhouse pen, framed by the words “Kochon Kréyol” and “Zami Mwen” which mean “creole pig” and “good friend” in Creole. The pig imagery is surrounded by leaves, buttons, sequins, and red flower petals. The petals, cut into droplets, resemble drops of blood and call to mind the animal sacrifice often performed in Haitian Vodou ritual. Goats, pigs, chickens, and bulls are among the animals commonly sacrificed in the ritual, the role of which is to emphasize the importance of blood and flesh, the sources of life-force and vigor in Vodou tradition. Although the domesticated pig is commonly slaughtered either for ritual or food, the woodcut honors the pig’s sacrifices by addressing it as a good friend in the Haitian language, exemplifying the creole appreciation for all living beings.

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The centerpiece of this block is a formerly minted Haitian coin. The coin features a profile view of La Sirene, a mami wata (mermaid) and a Loa of wealth. The complex mythology of Haitian Vodou was centered around an extensive pantheon of deities called Loa, each representing a unique natural force or human attribute. La Sirene is married to Agwe, Loa of the sea, and is known to embody materialism and vanity. The objects which surround La Sirene were chosen for their association with the sea; the translucent blue and white pebbles remind us of crashing ocean waves, and the small floating moon above the coin alludes to the power La Sirene holds over the oceans and tides. The torn fishnet placed over the coin is a reference to a life spent in the seas, yet it also represents bondage, pillage, and liberation, reminding us of the terrible violence and awesome courage that led to the birth of the nation of Haiti. The artists also included La Sirene veve, a geometric religious symbol drawn on the floor of a sacred space with corn meal, wheat flour, soil, or chalk. These objects and drawings, collected and arranged by the artists, unite together to create a piece which honors the deity and her worship while also recognizing the struggle that enabled the minting of a uniquely Haitian currency, presented here almost like a trophy raised high at the end of a hard-fought battle.