Modern-day realities of emancipation revealed in Lederer exhibit

An exhibit titled “Meditations on Emancipation (in the 21st Century)” opened in the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery on Feb. 1. The exhibit’s goal is to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and to illuminate contemporary connotations of freedom.

In a context of celebration, the exhibit serves as a reminder that, as Director of Galleries Cynthia Hawkins said, “One hundred and fifty years isn’t a very long time.”

According to Hawkins, “Meditations on Emancipation” is derived from a programming series focused on the Emancipation Proclamation devised by assistant professor of history Justin Behrend. It included a panel discussing “The Meaning of Emancipation” on Feb. 1 and will feature a keynote address by Steve Hahn, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania, on Feb. 21.

The nine artists who contributed work to the exhibit represent a large spectrum of cultures and interpretations of emancipation, employing a range of media that includes collage, oil paint and book making.

Hawkins said that she was surprised by “the unease of people” to exhibit on the topic of slavery when she released the call for work for “Meditations on Emancipation.” She added that the small number of artists who submitted work “speaks volumes about the resistance out there to still not wanting to be made uncomfortable.”

She emphasized the exhibit’s theme that emancipation is ongoing, not just for African-Americans but also for other victims of global injustice.

“There are certainly cases to be made for women who are enslaved in the sex trade, children who are enslaved … people who are economically and socially marginalized due to the results of not only being enslaved, but being so severely subordinated that they lack access to most normal things,” Hawkins said.

One of the most definitive works in the exhibit, Eto Otigbe’s “Becoming Visible” series demonstrates subordination and emancipation simultaneously both in its content and in the way it must be viewed. The three-part series depicts an African-American man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He looks downward in one painting, straight ahead in the next and upward in the last.

Otigbe’s dark paint and slatted canvas come together so that straight on, the man’s face is gray and difficult to decipher - he nearly blends in to the dark background. When viewed from the side, however, the figures are vibrant as light shines into the slats, turning the background white. As it changes character when viewed from a different perspective, Otigbe’s work transcends barriers of race and culture to touch the scalding truth of subjugation for all people.

“Mediations on Emancipation” will demonstrate these multifaceted views of emancipation through March 9.