Title: Untitled (Venice Biennale)
Artist: Fred Wilson (born 1954)
Medium or Technique: C-print
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Peter Norton; 2016.4.62
Image Credit: © Fred Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery
Fred Wilson is a curator and conceptual artist that often works with “found objects” from museums and other locations. In Untitled (Venice Biennale), Wilson juxtaposes a print of a city scape with gondolas to an image of a painted statue of a “blackamoor,” an Early Modern exoticized depiction of an African figure (Niehus 2012). This work is related to Wilson’s 2003 installation at the 50th Venice Biennale, where he exhibited as the representative artist of the United States. (Harris 2016). In both his installation and in this related print, Wilson references the uncredited African immigrants who have influenced Venetian culture for centuries. Of the work, Wilson says, “The African, the Black, the Negro, the Moor remains unacknowledged yet constant and lingering presence in Venice, inhabiting both its past as seen in Venetian visual culture and its contemporary life by the active presence today of African immigrants, more specifically Senegalese, who now inhabit the margins of Venice” (Globus, ed. 2011, 173-74).
There are many historical trails of the presence of African slaves in Renaissance Venice through gondolier accounts, criminal records and even legal wills. Slavery was seemingly visible in Italy and especially Venice (Lowe 2013, 419-423). As European trade routes expanded to include African ports, slaves were soon added to the list of imported goods. Phenderson Djeli Clark, an Afro-Caribbean-American writer, notes that most African slaves were acquired to work inside the home: “Youthful Africans, especially males but also girls, appear often in 17th and 18th century European paintings, dressed in expensive clothing and sometimes golden or silver collars, showing off the wealth of their masters and mistresses–their “exotic” blackness often juxtaposed to the whiteness of their owners” (Clark 2012). These youths were not only seen as domestic workforce, but also as exotic luxury commodities that were used to showcase their owner’s wealth. Although most Africans entered Venetian society as slaves, they could potentially gain freedom through manumission or the death of their owner. (Lowe 2013, 419-423).
Even after the papal abolition of slavery in the Roman Catholic world in the16th century, the exoticizing and commodifying the black body continued, as evidenced in cultural concepts like the “black-a-moor servant” (Clark 2012). Cultural critic Amy Rautenbach describes this trope, “…in Italian decorative art especially common in pieces of furniture, but also appearing in paintings, jewelry, and textiles. Commonly fixed in positions of servitude—as footmen or waiters, for example—the figures personify fantasies of racial conquest.” (Rautenbach 2015). Since their rise in popularity during the 1700s, objects depicting African figures were manufactured to be displayed in rooms that would hold gatherings or parties. Zalika Azim an Afro-Caribbean/American artist states, “These [objects] became synonymous with what it meant to be an upper middle-class person.” (Azim 2015). While their significance as symbols of wealth has diminished, these objects continue to decorate hotel lobbies and government buildings in Venice.
Wilson also referenced other, more contemporary, realities of the continued presence of Africans in the Venetian cityscape through a performance work he created outside of the Venice Biennale U.S. Pavilion. The artist hired a Senegalese tourist to act as a street vendor selling what passers-by assumed were knockoff designer bags. These, however, were not knockoffs, but one-of-a-kind designs by Wilson himself. This work got attention when police tried to arrest the vendor, halting when they realized he was part of an art performance (Hoban 2003). The influence of African imagery remains deeply embedded in present day Italian culture. The Milanese fashion house Dolce and Gabbana notoriously included blackamoor-inspired jewelry in their 2013 spring/summer collection. The brand justified their controversial design choices by stating that the iconographies were prominently interwoven in Italian history. It is these histories that Wilson sets out to explore and expose: By laying a historically complex image of an African prominently over a landscape clearly recognizable as early Venice, Wilson is asking the viewer to confront conditions of the past that are still visible in the everyday cityscape. Both images are presented as blending into each other: the landscape can be seen through of the image of the statue and vice versa. Through this very idea of “blending in,” Wilson points out the ways these histories are intertwined, but not necessarily resolved.
I chose to write about this piece, because I was interested in Wilson’s work as an artist and curator and the way he examines, questions, and deconstructs the traditional display of art in his installations. I think the way the artist superimposes the two images to talk about African influence in Venetian culture is successful in stirring up discussions about this complex topic.
Azim, Zalika. “A Milestone for Postcolonial Thought: Examining Art and Race in Florence and Venice.” Moma.org. The Museum of Modern Art, 05 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
Clark, P. Djeli. “Black-a-Moors in the European Imagination II: Beyond Dolce and Gabbana.” Pdjeliclark.wordpress.com. WordPress, 27 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
Globus, Doro, and Fred Wilson. Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader. London: Ridinghouse, 2011
Harris, Lindsay. “Re-focus: Fred Wilson at the 50th Venice Biennale.” The Brooklyn Rail. July 1, 2003. Accessed July 7, 2016. http://brooklynrail.org/2003/07/artseen/re-focus-fred-wilson-at-the-50th-venice-biennale.
Hoban, Phoebe. “The Shock of the Familiar.” NYMag.com. July 28, 2003. Accessed August 09, 2016. http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/n_9014/.
Lowe, Kate. “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice*.” Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 2 (2013): 412-52. Accessed August 05, 2016. doi:10.1086/671583.
Niehus, Karla. “Past Collection Highlight – Fred Wilson.” Kiarts.org. 2012. Accessed July 25, 2016. http://www.kiarts.org/page.php?page_id=587.
Rautenbach, Anneke. “Gaudy, Sure-But Racist Too? Unpacking Centuries of ‘Blackamoor’ Art.” Nyu.edu. New York University, 31 July 2015. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.
— Contributed by Curatorial Intern, Cristobal Alday (BA, Art History & Latino/a Studies 2017)
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