February is Black History Month, and nothing looms larger in black history than the evil specter of slavery. Three exhibits in the state take on this subject. Two were inspired by a notorious slave-trading center on the shores of Africa. The third pays tribute to the legendary escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass.
‘The Door Of No Return’
Robert Charles Hudson is haunted by what might be called “corridors of doom”: the pathway into the arena trod by ill-fated Roman gladiators, the queue walked by concentration-camp inmates toward the gas chambers. Hudson’s exhibit in Hartford Public Library’s ArtWalk gallery, “The Door of No Return,” focuses on one of these corridors, where kidnapped Africans walked to ships headed to the Americas.
“The door is a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man, for enslavement,” says Hudson, who lives in Bristol. “It describes an emotion, a feeling of insecurity, a traumatic experience.”
Hudson named the show after the site where seized Africans boarded boats headed to the Americas.
Hudson installed an arched, canvas-covered tunnel, which gallery visitors can walk through. Inside the tunnel, the ocean can be heard, via a video playing on the side wall. Upon emerging from the tunnel, a large painting is on the wall, an ocean scene with large white sails. The seaside, so often depicted in art as the site of placid contemplation, is recast by Hudson as the first glimpse into a terrifying future.
Hudson also sculpted busts to watch people as they walk through the tunnel, and collages of photos of African, Syrian, South American and Mesopotamian sculptures, to highlight the glory of ancient peoples. “How did we as a civilization go from this extreme, this great culture, to this extreme, slavery?” he asks.
ROBERT CHARLES HUDSON: THE DOOR OF NO RETURN is at Hartford Public Library, 500 Main St., until Feb. 25. hplct.org.
‘Ancestors Of The Passage’
An exhibit at William Benton Museum of Art at UConn in Storrs by artist Imna Arroyo was inspired by the same historic site that inspired Hudson’s Hartford exhibit: the “House of Slaves,” the home of the “Door of No Return.” Arroyo, a retired art professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, visited the place and had a revelation.
“The guide said ‘This is the door of no return.’ Suddenly a voice from the deep part of my soul told me to say ‘No, I’ve returned’,” Arroyo says. “It was an amazing experience. Time is a continuum. It continues in cycles, a spiral, something like that. I came from a place and I return to a place. And there I was.”
For “Ancestors of the Passage” Arroyo sculpted 27 busts of men and women with staring eyes and grave expressions. She installed them on the floor, amid strips of blue, white and green silk, signifying the sea. Each holds up palms toward the sky. The figures represent the many who died during the voyage. (Slave traders expected many to die; they considered a voyage profitable if half the captives survived the trip.)
The stories of the perished ones are horrifying and the artwork is haunting. However, Arroyo wants her message to be uplifting.
”The ancestors are coming from the dead up into the water, extending their hands to us to remind us of our gift,” she says. “We are very gifted people. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that, to not get bogged down in the reality we live in, to remember our rich spiritual tradition. We have many gifts in this life. We need to focus on the gifts.”
ANCESTORS OF THE PASSAGE: WORK BY IMNA ARROYO is at William Benton Museum of Art, at UConn in Storrs, until March 11. benton.uconn.edu.
‘Frederick Douglass In Ireland’
After he escaped slavery, Frederick Douglass lived in New Bedford, Mass. By 1845, he was becoming famous and worried that his former owner would find him. So he went to the British Isles.
Slavery already was abolished in Britain. Douglass was amazed at the reception he received, which was so supportive that a group of women raised money to buy his freedom. “
He said he was not a color, he was a man,” says Christine Kinealy, a history professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.
Then he went to Ireland, planning to stay for four days. He ended up staying four months. In Ireland, Douglass was especially eager to meet Daniel O’Connell, an Irish abolitionist who became renowned for refusing to shake the hand of an American ambassador who owned slaves. “Douglass said ‘I know if he hates my master I must love him’,” Kinealy says.
Kinealy is the curator of an exhibit in the library at the university’s Hamden campus. Kinealy has done extensive research on both men, who took to each other and were so similar in their beliefs that Douglass earned the nickname “The Black O’Connell.”
Douglass was so influenced by O’Connell, Kinealy says, that Ireland was featured in all his later speeches. In one he declared “I am for fair play for the Irishman, the Negro, the Chinaman, and for all men.”
The exhibit includes many historical artifacts and reproductions pertaining to Douglass, O’Connell and the slave trade. Some are serious – like an advertisement offering a reward for the capture of an escaped slave – and some are lighthearted, such as a Douglass doll made in the 1850s by an admirer.
The exhibit is part of a yearlong commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birth. An extension of the exhibit, a statue of a young Douglass has been installed on Quinnipiac’s North Haven campus.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS IN IRELAND: “THE BLACK O’CONNELL” is in Arnold Bernhard Library at Quinnipiac University, 275 Mt. Carmel Ave. in Hamden, until Jan. 28, 2019. Details here.
A fourth black-history themed exhibit opens at Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave. in New Haven, on Feb. 21. “The Rise and Fail of the N-Word: Implicit Bias and the N-Word Living in our Subconscious,” a show of work by Rhinold Ponder, addresses the lack of a common language to share perspectives on racism. kehlerliddellgallery.com.