Acclaimed New York-based contemporary artist Sanford Biggers will reveal a new sculpture this week that responds to the Chazen Museum of Art’s problematic Emancipation Group sculpture, providing a highlight to the museum’s re:mancipation exhibition.
The reveal, set for Thursday at 6 p.m., kicks off Jump N Funk, a dance music party with Afrofuturist-driven visuals featuring DJ Rich Medina, Biggers’s musical group Moon Medicin, and UW–Madison’s Dr. Yorel Lashley and Drum Power.
Nineteenth century American sculptor Thomas Ball created several versions of Emancipation Group, all of which depict Abraham Lincoln standing, arm outstretched over a crouching freedman. Even contemporary observers noted the passive, subservient posture of the crouching figure. In the throes of racial justice protests in 2020, one version of the work was removed from a public park in Boston; another remains on view in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Park, despite calls to remove it.
Like Emancipation Group, Biggers’s Lifting the Veil is rendered in white Italian marble. Fabricated by Quarra Stone Company of Madison, it incorporates a textile quilt and juxtaposes Lincoln and the famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It references both the Chazen piece and one by Charles Keck depicting Booker T. Washington lifting the “veil of ignorance” from a formerly enslaved person.
Biggers’s studio used digital scans of Emancipation Group and other works to create a 3-D model that Quarra used as a reference. A robotic milling machine did the initial carving, removing the bulk of the stone, and hand carvers finished the parts of the sculpture that couldn’t be rendered by machine.
Rendering Douglass’ iconic hair in stone presented technical challenges. Because African American hair doesn’t render well in 3-D scans, more hand carving was required. Quarra consulted with Academy Award-nominated hair stylist Camille Friend to coach the stone carvers and critique their practice studies before they worked on Lifting the Veil.
“re:mancipation is this museum’s attempt to grapple with a problematic object in our collection in a way that helps us understand how to be a better museum,” said Chazen Director Amy Gilman. “At the beginning, it was really just about the object, and the object is at the center of the project. But we also want to expose the process of getting to this point.”
re:mancipation is a unique exhibition in several ways. It involved extensive collaboration between artists and the museum from its early, conceptual phases. It incorporates and reinterprets works in the museum’s permanent collection with new and existing works by the artist. And it includes numerous collaborators and mediums, including fiber arts, sculpture, a website, augmented reality, dance, music, spoken word, a podcast, and video.
Students from UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project met and engaged with the artists and contributors to re:mancipation. For many years, Emancipation Group has been part of the Odyssey Project curriculum where participants imagine what Douglass might have thought of the work.
“I’ve often said that a few of my favorite materials are actually history and dialogue,” Biggers said in a podcast episode. “And I mean that in the sense that a lot of my references, conceptually and even formally and through materials, do reference things that have already happened in history. But through that, and the juxtaposition and contexts in which I placed those realized pieces, it creates a dialogue. And I’m interested to see how that dialogue can absorb aspects of history, and also talk about the present moment. And all of this, of course, is to serve us all better in the future.”
re:mancipation sprang from an earlier visit to the Chazen by Biggers and collaborator Mark Hines of MASK Consortium. They were at the Chazen in 2019 wrapping up an earlier exhibition when they saw Emancipation Group. They began a dialogue with the Chazen that resulted in re:mancipation.
The re:mancipation project, supported through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, and with additional support from the National Education Association, the Brittingham Wisconsin Trust, and UW–Madison’s Office of the Chancellor. Portions of this exhibition’s text content were provided or inspired by America’s Black Holocaust Museum. The re:mancipation exhibition is on view at the Chazen through June 25.