WORCESTER — In an 1850 daguerreotype, Drana, an enslaved woman in South Carolina, tilts her head. Her face is tense. She is nude from the waist up. Her gaze is defiant, quizzical, hurt.
The image was made by Joseph T. Zealy, whom Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned to photograph “African types” to support theories of white supremacy. Fifteen photographs from this project were discovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976 — seven men and women, presented as specimens.
In “Redemption,” a tender yet unflinching exhibition at ArtsWorcester, enamelist Jennifer Davis Carey approaches Zealy’s subjects with love.
The daguerreotypes are at the core of a debate about who owns images of enslaved people. In 2019, Tamara Lanier, who said she is a descendant of two of Zealy’s subjects, sued Harvard for damages and ownership of the images. Last March, courts found in favor of Harvard, and Lanier has appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, Harvard formed a committee to examine its history with slavery. The committee’s findings are expected late this year.
It’s a necessary and thorny discussion. But in a way, a debate about ownership of the images does a disservice to their subjects. First they were dehumanized by slavery, by Agassiz’s racist classifications, and by Zealy’s lens. Now they are symbols of a controversy.
Carey, who is executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative, remedies that.
She encloses copies of Zealy’s cold, brutal images in folders in the center of the gallery. Audio from the Library of Congress’s “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories” archive, available in the gallery, underlines the terrible history.
But the rest of the show reclaims the dignity of Drana and the others. Carey’s enamel photo transfers soften the startling crispness of the daguerreotypes. She applies more enamel, covering the subjects’ nakedness in brightly patterned African dress, or in the type of Sunday best a well-to-do white person in 1850 might don for a photograph. These could be treasured family portraits.
Drana appears in a double frame with her father, Jack. In this context, her stiffness looks benign, like that of anyone posing for a long exposure in 1850.
Carey’s enamel pours respect into images empty of it. “Redemption” is homeopathic, a small gesture in the wake of a giant history. May its effects ripple backward, and provide succor to these ancestors.
JENNIFER DAVIS CAREY: REDEMPTION At ArtsWorcester, 44 Portland St., Worcester, through Nov. 7. 508-755-5142, https://artsworcester.org/