Fred Wilson Field TripMarch 2nd, 2017
© Mysoon Rizk, PhD / November 2016
On November 3, 2016, a colleague and I drove six students for an hour and a half to Oberlin, Ohio, to hear African-American artist Fred Wilson (b.1954) speak about his work on the occasion of two exhibitions he installed this past year at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum in this small college town (my alma mater). We were already familiar with the artist, each one of us having often admired his black glass sculpture Iago’s Mirror (2009), acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in 2010 — and currently on view in the TMA’s Gallery 6 for the temporary exhibition Shakespeare’s Characters: Playing the Part. Listening to a talk by the 1999 recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant was inspiring and exciting. Getting to see his work in both a solo exhibition (Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten) and in the site-specific installation Wildfire Test Pit was amazing.
As a generous, instructive, insightful orator, Fred Wilson was spectacular, sharing slides as he described an artistic trajectory and longtime interest in understanding museums through their collections (“what’s there, what’s not there”). Starting out by invitation from the Maryland Historical Society, his attention began training on the Atlantic slave trade, the Indian slave trade, and movements of oil — or as he came to call such dynamics, Movement of Blackness. Giving form to institutional memory by “mining” museum collections, Wilson would feature decommissioned possessions, like slave shackles or a public whipping post, side by side with an institution’s finest silver and furniture. He spoke about installing over 50 portraits of Daniel Webster at the Hood Museum, in Dartmouth College, at the same time as a series of plaster cast busts identifying human specimens from around the world. In the case of the latter, Wilson hid racial inscriptions with sashes of mourning, to encourage viewers to see them as people, including a cast of Ota Benga, the Congolese youth exhibited at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904 who would end up committing suicide in Virginia 12 years later.
In mining the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin, Mr. Wilson found himself magnetized by Edmonia Lewis whose story “remains obscured by rumor and mystery” as one scholar puts it. An orphan of African-American and Native-American heritage from New York, Lewis began to study art at Oberlin College in 1859. A few months after the Civil War had begun, she was accused of poisoning two (white) friends, beaten by a mob, arrested, and tried. Although acquitted, she remained a target and eventually left without graduating. Heading to Boston, she secured further artistic training, before taking up residency in Rome, Italy for a few years, where Lewis enjoyed success for her marble statuary. After returning to the States she disappears from the historical record. Wilson called the nineteenth-century sculptor a “guiding light” for his site-specific installation at the Oberlin museum, which he entitled Wildfire Test Pit for the Indian name given to Edmonia Lewis and the “archaeological term for a site you dig to see what’s there.”
Our field trip to Oberlin proved intensely rewarding, inspiring reflection long afterward: on the creative process, erasure and exclusion, the construct of race as well as concepts of time or memory, the roles of museums in compressing histories, individuals recorded and those forgotten, objects acknowledged and those to be buried. In the coming weeks, students will be sharing their own thoughts about the opportunity to hear from a practicing contemporary artist and to experience the work firsthand. Please stay tuned! Fred Wilson’s work remains on view at the Allen Memorial Art Museum until June 2017.