Mixed-media exhibit uses runaway slave ads

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cora Marshall revisits a difficult point in American history in “Emancipated Memories: Uncovering the Hidden Faces of Slavery.”

The show, which opened Thursday at the John Nicholas Brown Center, showcases Marshall’s deft use of mixed media to recreate newspaper ads used by slave-owners to sell slaves or to offer rewards for runaways.

Marshall first discovered these ads at the Library of Congress while doing research for a different art project.

“These newspaper advertisements were very rich in description: color of hair, type of complexion, clothes,” Marshall said. “You know, it was a skirt with blue polka dots and a red stripe.”

For Marshall’s artistic eye such detailed verbal description “conjured up images.” Inspired to transform these into art, Marshall, who had long used exclusively oil paints, began to experiment with acrylic paints and mixed media. She wanted to reveal the characters and emotions absent in the bare wording of the ads. Slaves were described as soulless commodities, but Marshall sought to animate these ads, incorporating them into visual depictions in order to reveal the slaves as “ordinary people.”

The ads used by Marshall were primarily drawn from New England newspapers. According to Marshall, many slaves in New England, unlike most slaves in the South, could read and write but still had to “blend in, not stand out.”

“I want to give them an identity,” Marshall said.

The exhibit features two series of Marshall’s paintings: “Going, going, gone” and “To be sold.” The former is based on the descriptive runaway ads, while the second one is based on newspaper ads that simply said “to be sold” and lacked any visual description at all.

The empty “to be sold” ads are an object of curiosity for Marshall. “Who are they? Where did they go? Were they being separated from their families?” she writes on her Web site.

“I think it’s really beautiful,” said Ife Salam, a graduate student from the Rhode Island School of Design who viewed the exhibit on Friday. “She kind of flips traditional roles and makes the slaves that are depicted really personal and makes the slave holders abstract.”

Marshall uses layering as her primary method, fusing snippets of the ads with acrylic paint and later covering her images with a layer of wax. With this technique, Marshall is able to direct the viewer’s attention through various parts of the painting.

“Certain aspects of the figure come out and become all the more real to you,” Salam said.

The layer of wax Marshall applies seems to act as a veil over the faces of the slaves. She also uses bright colors that allude to the African ancestry of the slaves. Although the background of each work interweaves these different elements, Marshall paints each slave’s face as one cohesive whole.

“No matter where you go in the room, their eyes will follow you,” she said.

In addition to her exhibit, Marshall gave a lecture on black female artists last Thursday. She mentioned artists such as Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold and spoke of the ways that each of them had honored black history in her works. Through her art, Marshall seeks to find a connection to her past as well.

“I am part of everyone before me,” Marshall said. “I am the summation of all my ancestors.”

The exhibit will be run through April 5 and is free and open to the public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *