‘ReSignifications,” at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, is a pointed object lesson. What can we learn from blackamoors, the servile black figures in art history?
Thirty-six blackamoor statues, mostly made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reside in New York University’s Villa La Pietra, a historic home housing an art collection in Florence. Curator Awam Amkpa invited an international slate of artists to respond to these figures for a 2015 exhibition there.
The version at the Cooper Gallery is scaled down, but no matter; the show’s setup is succinct. Blackamoors objectify people of African descent. “ReSignifications” examines what it means to diminish a people. Some artists, such as photographer Delphine Diallo, counter the strictures blackamoors represent with a celebration of self. In her regal images, black women wear magnificent headdresses made of hair.
Other works directly grapple with the erasure of a person’s humanity. The faces of “Ana (Human)” and “Ana (Blackamoor),” in photographs by Riccardo Cavallari, emerge from blackness and look like kin, but one is a wood carving. In this horrifying twist on the Pinocchio tale, a woman must toggle between being a puppet and being human.
Similar figures speak in Vasco Araujo’s arresting video, “Theme Park,” filmed at Portugal dos Pequenitos, a Portuguese park built in the mid 20th-century with, among other diversions, pavilions dedicated to the country’s former colonies. Araujo filmed statues there painted jet black with scarlet lips, many with vexed expressions. They converse in voice-over, wondering how they got there.
“You are the systematic denial of the other,” intones a basso, monotone trio of statues, “You are a furious decision to deny the other of any human attribute.”
There are many subsidiary themes in “ReSignifications,” such as the treatment of African immigrants in Italy today. The show spells out with chilling precision what the fears, desires, and power structures of predominantly white societies can do to nonwhites, and offers a proud rebuke.
At Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through May 5. 617-496-5777, www.coopergalleryhc.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.