Georges Adéagbo Channels a Humanized Abraham Lincoln

WASHINGTON, DC — Create to Free Yourselves—Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America, which opened on November 18 at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, is the culmination of more than two decades of artist Georges Adéagbo’s fascination with the United States president. The exhibition, curated by Karen Milbourne, reinvents at scale an installation by Adéagbo that was shown at Lincoln’s Cottage in DC early in 2023. Its inception goes back decades, to Adéagbo’s original vision for an installation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Its current incarnation was informed by a 2021 fellowship that enabled the artist, born in 1942 in Cotonou, Benin, to research Lincoln and channel the collection of memorabilia — including letters, artifacts, and clothes — located in the Smithsonian Museum of American History into his art.

The exhibition’s location on the National Mall matches the confidence of Adéagbo’s vision of Lincoln. Yet visitors may be surprised and challenged at first by the show’s eclectic materiality. Adéagbo is the artist in the archive, but also acts as collector, explorer, and curator. In his characteristic style, the installation brings together everyday or discarded objects, often sourced from local flea markets, alongside African sculptures and painted tableaux commissioned from artisans in Benin, as well as second-hand books, photographs, vinyl, and even a lost toy recovered from the park that surrounds the museum. The effect is humanizing and lyrical, yet highly conceptual. It brings high and popular culture, global networks and local belonging, the foreign and the familiar, into poetic proximity. 

Most unsettling and poignant is the artist’s communion with Lincoln, across time and within this contained universe of associations. Central to one of the radiating assemblages, which resemble shrines, is an equestrian statue of Lincoln in a top hat, carved in Benin and facing an African sculpture. The objects’ encounter is suffused with the loneliness and pathos of Lincoln’s unfinished life’s work: Adéagbo was inspired by Lincoln’s daily commute from the Soldiers’ Home to the White House in the summer. The itinerant motif subtly recalls the global circulations, often forced and violent, that enslaved millions of people and brought artifacts into Western collections. The artist teases out the exploitative and exhibitionist currents in aesthetic traditions and museum display practices, yet his world-making reclaims the emancipatory values of creative expression, movement, and cross-cultural exchange. 

Perhaps most astounding is the way an installation composed of seemingly modest elements conveys the role of Lincoln as a figure of not only American but global significance. It is no accident that Adéagbo has, all along, imagined his intervention as located at the center of the US capital, in the heart of the national narrative. Several years in the making, the exhibition has uncanny timeliness. Adéagbo’s cosmopolitan gaze exposes the parochialism of racist rhetoric, the shamefulness of narrow national interest, the fallacy of ignoring the interconnectedness of past and present, here and elsewhere. And he reclaims the violence of forced and cruel journeys, sublimating them into a sense of freedom and even exuberance: creating to free yourself.

Create to Free Yourselves: Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America continues at the National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Avenue Southwest, Washington, DC) through Fall of 2024. The exhibition was curated by Karen Milbourne.

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