News Column

New exhibition explores past abominations

August 31, 2014

By Teri Greene, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

Aug. 31--"Slavery By Another Name: Paintings and Assemblages by Robert Claiborne Morris," at the Rosa Parks Museum through Oct. 25, is a wake-up call from an era, in the scope of history, that was not too long ago. It is the visual expression of a horrific but largely unknown practice -- the re-enslavement of African-Americans in the South long after the Emancipation Proclamation, even well into the 20th century.

Morris was inspired to create the works after reading an early draft of Douglas A. Blackmon's 2008 book "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II," which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In the book, Blackmon explores the little-known practice of "convict leasing" in the post-Reconstruction South. Black convicts were leased as labor to individuals and corporations. A vast number of the men were arrested for obscure crimes -- vagrancy, for selling cotton after sundown.

That practice, now referred to as re-enslavement, continued in some Southern states until the late 1940s.

Blackmon, who worked as a Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, had for more than a decade uncovered scores of previously unexplored examples, bringing re-enslavement to light.

Envisioning past atrocities

Morris, who, like Blackmon, is white, was compelled to make this harrowing but long forgotten chapter in history strikingly visual, and not just through paint and canvas but through physical pieces of history.

"One of the most inspiring experiences I've had is seeing people go through and, unlike a lot of art showings, you'll see people almost their noses touching the pieces to read and to see and to feel this era," Morris told a crowd of gallery visitors during his stop in Montgomery earlier this month. The exhibition has traveled throughout the Southeast and beyond, always eliciting emotional reactions.

When a high-ranking official of Washington, D.C.'sMartin Luther King Memorial Library invited a host of well-known media personalities to Morris' exhibition, she had her own story to tell.

"She stood up and said, 'My grandfather, and my two great-uncles -- three brothers -- were sold back into slavery to the Birmingham mines. My two great-uncles died, and my grandfather escaped. And that's why I'm here today. And that's why this show is here.'

"It was hard for me to say anything after that. It's moving, still, to think about -- that personal history. This is oral history, this isn't ancient history. These are people whose lives are impacted who come out and tell the story.

"It is one of the greatest moments of my life to be able to stand in the Rosa Parks Museum and have this work here," he added.

Many of Morris' works incorporate found objects and large images for which he foraged in junkyards, flea markets and historical societies throughout the South. His implements include scraps of tin culled from sharecroppers' shacks, ropes, chains and bolts of burlap from the era.

In a search in and around the Savannah River, Morris found portions of linked metal, jailers' keys and pieces of rigging. After consulting with an archaeologist, he learned these items came from slave vessels -- the chains were pieces of actual shackles forced onto imprisoned victims -- in a vessel winding through this major thoroughfare in the slave (and re-enslavement) trade.

Often, the backdrop for these objects are clips of paper -- Confederate dollars, newspaper announcements of available "negro wenches," reports of runaway slaves. In "Long March," one of many mixed-media works, Morris merges these print relics with the image of well-dressed civil rights activists in the mid-20th century, heads held high. In another, "Coal Miners," such paper snippets surround a central image of a pair of re-enslaved men with gaunt, frightened faces. His piece "Abolishing Slavery" includes a carefully mounted collection of rusted jailers' keys, locks and other objects that would have been lost to history.

A personal connection

Daniel Neil, curator of the Rosa Parks Museum, said the exhibition hits home; Alabama, he said, was the largest consumer of convict leasing labor, which allowed the South's economy to function.

"There is a whole generation or two that went into the mines in Birmingham that just disappeared," Neil said. "That part of the story is something in the whole arc of African-American experience in Alabama that is under-represented and shines a light on the pressing issues in the civil rights movement."

In addition to his artifact-based works, Morris depicts individuals who were caught up in the nightmare of re-enslavement, as well. While creating a portrait from a re-digitized photograph, he realized the re-enslaved man in the photo had a wound in his solar plexus that would never heal.

"It was one of the eeriest experiences of creating this work of art, because as I was painting this man's portrait, I felt him coming alive," said Morris, who noted that countless re-enslaved people died once captured and put to work. "It is a very special piece, because we don't know who he is, but he's here now."

In an adjacent portrait, with a man standing against a stark red background, Morris said,"I tried to capture this bewilderment, this sense of, 'I was just in my mother's house last week, and now I am in this strange place, and I have no idea what's about to happen to me.' "

Between the two portraits, is a large burlap-based piece, "The Cycle of Slavery," with a rusted old oil drum surrounded by old iron pins that would have been used in ships that sailed the Savannah River in the 18th and 19th centuries. The pins encircle the drum, conjuring the spokes of a wheel.

"It is meant to capture the sense that whether it's slavery or re-enslavement or human rights or the sex trade that has now become revealed in many articles around the country, there will always be people who will try to use human bondage for their own profit," Morris said. "This is a reminder that we always have to be aware of that."



WANT TO GO?

WHAT: "Slavery By Another Name: Paintings and Assemblages by Robert Claiborne

Morris"

WHEN: Through Oct. 25

WHERE: Troy University's Rosa Parks

Museum, 252 Montgomery St. in downtown Montgomery. The exhibit hall at the Rosa Parks Museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

ADMISSION: Free

INFORMATION: 241-8615

MORE INFORMATION: To see the documentary film "Slavery by Another Name," which premiered in 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival and was later aired on PBS, go to http://video.pbs.org/program/slavery-

another-name/ The site also includes an interview with author Douglas A. Blackmon and other educational features.

___

(c)2014 Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

Visit the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) at www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)


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