University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) Exhibit
Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism
We offered this virtual exhibition tour in the Winter 2021 semester, and are offering it again this spring in conjunction with the April 22 class “From Confederate Monuments to Black Lives Matter." The museum exhibit was originally organized as a response to UMMA’s acquisition of Titus Kaphar’s Flay (James Madison), prompting the museum’s curators to grapple with their collections of European and American art, 1650-1850. Flay (James Madison) is one of several portraits in a series where Kaphar scrutinizes the Founding Fathers of the United States. As national figures, the Founding Fathers are revered as great men who fought against the tyranny of British rule and achieved liberty for the colonies. Complicating their stories is the fact that many of these men simultaneously participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That history, and the stories of those who were enslaved and later marginalized, do not readily appear in the still lives and portraits on display among the Museum’s collections. In response to the themes in Kaphar’s work, portraits such as those of Abraham Lincoln and Martha Washington have been reinstalled, Dutch Golden Age paintings made possible by the slave trade have been newly described, and the agency and presentation of photographs of indigenous people questioned. By confronting what is visible and what remains hidden, we are forced to examine whose stories and histories are prioritized and why. By highlighting the connections of presence, absence, and power among disparate works of art, the curators of this online exhibition allow us to explore UMMA’s efforts to deeply question the role of the collections in promoting our complicity in favoring colonial voices.