A wall is painted red and says "Hear Me Now" in orange lettering inside the UMMA.
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In collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the University of Michigan Museum of Art is currently hosting “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” until Jan. 7. The exhibit, which opened at the start of the fall semester, features pottery created by 19th century enslaved African Americans from the Old Edgefield region, which is located between Columbia, S.C. and Augusta, Ga.

Associate history professor Jason Young helped curate the exhibit over multiple years alongside Adrienne Spinozzi, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Ethan Lasser, Art of the Americas chair at the Museum of Fine Arts. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Young said the exhibit is intended to challenge preconceptions about American slavery based on the relationship between slavery and agriculture in the South.

“Typically, when we think about slavery in this country, we’re imagining agricultural slavery,” Young said. “We’re imagining enslaved people who are working on tobacco plantations, or cotton or rice or sugar. Here, we have an example of what is really industrial-scale slavery, where people are involved in creating ceramic materials on an industrial scale. That really changes the way we think about American slavery.”

In an interview with The Daily, UMMA Director Christina Olsen said the exhibit represents the museum’s commitment to being an anti-racist institution. The UMMA currently highlights its commitment to amplifying the voices of Black and Indigenous people of Color on its website, in addition to its commitment to developing exhibitions in partnership with BIPOC artists and communities. According to their website, the UMMA is also establishing a process to review all current and future UMMA programs through a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, anti-racism and social justice. 

Olsen said the “Hear Me Now” exhibit aligns with the museum’s mission by bringing light to a part of American history that is often left in the dark.

“This exhibition is the first national exhibition showing works of art by the most disenfranchised people that you can imagine, and that’s people who were enslaved,” Olsen said. “We’re working very hard to uplift and amplify the voices and perspectives of people who have been entirely written out of history.”

While the exhibit features works from enslaved artists of the 19th century, contemporary pieces by artists Simone Leigh and Adebunmi Gbadebo are also displayed alongside historic pieces. Leigh’s piece in the exhibition, a large white ceramic jug, symbolizes the influence of older artists on the current generation. Young said it was important to include modern artists who have built off of the original works created in the Old Edgefield area.

“There are a number of artists who have looked to this Edgefield material and found inspiration in it,” Young said. “You’ll note in the (exhibition) that the artists who are engaged with this material are thinking really seriously about Edgefield, but they’re also making brand new works of art out of it, and moving the legacy and tradition forward in some really fascinating ways.”

Various ceramic works created by David Drake, known as just “Dave” prior to emancipation, are centerpieces of the exhibition. As an enslaved potter, Drake engraved lines of original poetry into his works, even though writing poetry was illegal for slaves in the Antebellum South. Young said the combination of pottery and poetry makes Drake’s works particularly impactful for viewers because they are encouraged to think of specific images and metaphors when viewing the art.

“Dave is a tremendous figure as a potter, he’s making incredible pieces of pottery, (and) he shows himself to be a really remarkable poet at the same time,” Young said. “He writes himself into the traditions of 19th century African-American literature and letters, and he also is writing himself into the history of 19th century visual art.”

Storage jars made by Drake sit upon pedestals strewn about one half of the gallery dedicated to the exhibit at the UMMA. While it’s difficult to make out all of Drake’s poetry directly on the pottery, the exhibition includes a label with the full verses beneath the pieces so viewers can still read them. Young said poems like Drake’s acted as a resistance to the system of slavery.

“When he’s writing on these pots, he’s engaged in an act of defiance,” Young said. “That act of defiance is evident not only in the writing of the poems but also in the substance of some of those poems. He’s writing couplets that both resist the system of slavery but that many times resist it in a way that demonstrates a certain amount of subtlety and awareness about the limits of his speech.”

A quote from Victoria Reed, Sadler senior curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, is displayed on one of the gallery walls. The quote prompts visitors to consider how work created by enslaved people fits into broader discussions around unethically obtained art.

“A break in the chain occurs when a work of art changes hands without the consent of its owner or maker,” her quote reads. “These breaks can take the form of theft, looting, forced sales and transfers under coercion or without compensation. But what about a work of art that was conceptualized under duress? Could Dave truly consent to handing his creations over without remuneration?”

Several pieces in the exhibit do not have an identifiable artist because enslaved artists did not have the right to own their work prior to emancipation. In some cases, slave owners would claim ownership over the works, leaving the original artists unacknowledged. Despite this, Young said it was important to not use the term “unrecorded artist” in relation to these pieces. Instead, he and his co-curators decided to leave the labels blank until they can uncover the identity of the original artist of each piece.

“A more traditional or typical label would read something like ‘unrecorded artist,’ and for a number of reasons that didn’t feel right,” Young said. “To us, it wasn’t just that they are artists who are unrecorded, but in fact they’re full human beings … and so it was important to us to include on the label, first a blank line to hold space for the names of people we can’t name now and maybe through increased and continued research we’ll be able to fill in some of those blank lines.”

Standing in the wing of the UMMA dedicated to African art, Olsen said for museums that want to research the history behind every piece and artist in their collection, their work is never finished.

“Every museum of any size will have whole areas that it needs to do more research in,” Olsen said. “The research could be really deep, you could know who it is and what it’s made of, but you still might not know ‘how did it come here, what’s the provenance, who’s written on this?’ Any of that more in-depth research that might help with anti-racism work or might help with provenance work, we have lots of areas of the collection that need more of that.”

Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at joshuni@umich.edu