The Cooper Gallery spring 2018 exhibition features an interpretive version of the remarkable installation, ReSignifications, by our guest curator, Awam Ampka. ReSignifications was originally presented in 2015 at New York University’s Villa La Pietra in Florence, Italy as part of “Black Portraiture[s] II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories.” ReSignifications links classical and popular representations of African bodies in European art, culture and history as it interprets and interrogates the “Blackamoor” trope in Western culture that emerged at the intersection of cross-cultural encounters shaped by centuries of migration, exchange, conquest, servitude, and exile.
ReSignifications invokes classical and popular representations of African bodies in European art, culture and history. It moderates and subverts their particular artistic conventions by using the works of contemporary artists to engage in dialogue with the broad historical array of ornamental representations of such bodies. The artists in this exhibition speak against the background of the connected histories of Europe and Africa, and the African Diasporas. Its premise is from the ubiquitous models of decorative art known as the “Blackamoors” – furniture, sculptures, paintings, and tapestries – that portray African bodies in service, as domestic workers, soldiers, porters, and custodians of palatial properties” initially made in the 17th century and continuously produced through the 19th and 20th centuries. Our own era is peppered with the resurrections and contemporary renditions of these figures across a variety of media and spaces – from private homes, hotels, and museums, to aspirational fashion and jewelry. The presence of these images pervades contemporary Florence and Venice, (among other Italian and European locales) to an astonishing degree.
Who made them and why? What traditions of decorative art production and collection do they represent? What material histories and cultural meanings do they encode? How might contemporary artists interpret these meanings from diverse disciplinary perspectives? How do artists in our own time re-make these meanings through contemporary works of photography, sculpture, and film? ReSignifications confronts these representations with audacious presentations of such bodies as protagonists of histories and cultures. The exhibition combines styles across time and place to reframe and refract the history of representing African and African diasporic bodies. The unusual juxtaposition of these works gives the exhibition its texture and flavor, thereby underscoring the words of Gianbattista Marino (1569-1625): “Nera sì, ma se’ bella.” (“Black yes, but so beautiful”).
“The blackamoors are products of ‘civilizational transitions’ and tensions that continue to plague European cultural spaces. Its discursive dimensions has have intensified in the age of migrations where anxieties abound about race, citizenship and residency of African migrants. The history suggests blackamoors are a combination of African and Moorish identities dissolved into things of decorative leisure and historical ‘objecthood.’ ReSignifications sees migration as a human right in which the attendant prejudices of such rights are highlighted and contested.”
-Awam Amkpa, Curator