Had you ventured into the courtyard of Jonathan Edwards College any time from the 1930s through the 1970s, you might have noticed a still, plaintive figure kneeling somewhere within the environment of grass and concrete and trees. Perhaps you admired the tentative play of sunlight on the black lead in which the sculpture is cast, or attempted to decipher the time told from the bronze sundial which the figure supports on its head. Maybe you whiled away lazy days studying, or lazy nights murmuring with friends under the starless sky, in its company. You might even have, with the sort of youthful irreverence present in every generation, etched your name among the graffiti marring the figure’s strained back.
It is with a decidedly different — a more constructive — kind of irreverence, I would say, that this unnamed garden statue of an African-born slave has been placed at the center of one of the rooms now occupied by “Figures of Empire,” an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 14. At first glance, the premise of the exhibition seems straightforward enough: It aims to explore, through a diverse array of portraits drawn predominantly from the museum’s collections, the impact of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade on 18th-century Britain.
However, the core attitude of the exhibition is to look at many of these works in ways that run counter to their creators’ original intentions — hence, the aforementioned “irreverence.” It is rich with examples of dignified portraits and conversation pieces featuring wealthy white members of British society, but our real focus is turned to those figures in the background, servants and slaves of African descent who have been consciously included as subordinate figures but whom the exhibition challenges us to examine as subjects in their own right. This is a project in reconstructing the historical and personal identities of such individuals through artistic analysis, even if efforts to locate them in official or family records have largely proven to be in vain.
As modern-day viewers, we already naturally feel — I would hope — some degree of discomfort with paintings like these, and as such it is with relative ease that we can adopt the critical eye that the exhibition asks of us. Because of this, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as temporally, physically and emotionally removed from these pieces; after all, it is by virtue of our distance from them that we can even begin to look at them in the way that we do. This illusion is shattered by specific and notable objects within the exhibition that do well to remind us not only of where we are but also of our connections to this seemingly bygone society. As it turns out, the garden statue is believed to have stood on the estate of our very own founding benefactor Elihu Yale, who made his fortune from the transatlantic slave trade. A huge and rarely exhibited group portrait featuring Elihu Yale himself, accompanied, among others, by a slave boy wearing a collar and padlock around his neck, hangs at the start of the exhibition.
This is only one way in which curators Cyra Levenson, Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer engage the viewers in dialogue with the works on display. As Levenson says, the exhibition itself has “emerged from conversation” surrounding “complicated objects” like the ones described above, and it is a conversation they hope not necessarily to resolve, but rather to sustain and explore with their audience. Complicated objects give way to complicated questions, ranging from what constitutes a portrait (see, for example, the challenging “Bust of a Man,” which stands in the center of the second room) to how identity is constructed.
In order to foster this kind of dialogue among viewers, Levenson, Chadwick and Gamer curate subtle but productive dialogue among the pieces themselves. Within the 18th-century framework of the exhibition is a healthy representation of the ways in which people began to grapple with the moral issues surrounding slavery; in the second room, for example, the painstakingly constructed dignity of the conversation pieces belies the shifts which were beginning to occur during this time, as reflected in the abolitionist pieces on the other side of the room. “Figures of Empire” concludes with examples of Anglo-Africans themselves who used single-figure portraiture to construct their own identities much in the same fashion as their predecessors.
The exhibition encompasses a wide range of objects in negotiating an understanding of these “figures of empire,” and many of these objects can be challenging, even perplexing. In setting out such a variety of representations, however — traditional, alternative, satirical, empowering — “Figures of Empire” allows us to formulate a less restrictive view of a disenfranchised population. And that is something worth talking about.