Extraordinary Frederick Douglass Archive Inspired an Exhibition and Ceremonial Tribute Staged by Artist Raphaël Barontini


The exhibition “Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom” at the SCAD Museum of Art was accompanied by “The Golden March,” a special commission by artist Raphaël Barontini composed of a marching band performance and site-specific installations. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 

SAVANNAH, GA.—CARRYING FLAGS AND BANNERS bearing the image of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the Savannah High School marching band paraded in front of the SCAD Museum of Art. Titled “The Golden March,” the performance last fall was organized by artist Raphaël Barontini in celebration of the opening of “Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom,” a group exhibition based on the Frederick Douglass Family Archive of Walter and Linda Evans.

A treasure trove of letters, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other primary documents, the private collection brings to light previously unknown details of Douglass’s personal history and family life, terrain little explored in his books and writings.

A former slave, Douglass transformed himself into a revolutionary abolitionist, statesman, author, and orator. He was also the most photographed American in the 19th century. Douglass sat for more than 160 portraits, making a lasting statement that pushed back against racist imagery and commanded acknowledgement of his humanity.

The archive has provided a wealth of new information and insights about the last third of Douglass’s life and tensions between his public and private personas for scholars who’ve poured over the materials, generating new books and the exhibition.

“Embers of Freedom” presented several leather-bound scrapbooks and key materials from the collection in conversation with modern and contemporary artworks by artists Omar Victor Diop, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Lubaina Himid, Jacob Lawrence, Titus Kaphar, Meleko Mokgosi, Betye Saar, James VanDerZee, and Charles White, among others.

Few of the works actually portrayed Douglass. Rather, they reflected what the exhibition curators described as his “aesthetic and political values.”

New works by Onyedika Chuke, TR Ericsson, Glyneisha Johnson, Le’Andra LeSeur, and Charles Edward Williams, were also commissioned for the exhibition. LeSeur and Williams are SCAD alum.

Two stand-alone exhibitions also coincided “Embers of Freedom”: Barontini’s “The Golden Touch” and “Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour,” a five-channel film by British artist Isaac Julien.

British actor Ray Fearon portrays Douglass in the film, which dramatizes episodes in his life. Key speeches shape the work, including “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?,” and “Lecture on Pictures,” in which Douglass discusses the power of photography and connects picture making to his “vision of how technology can influence human relations.”

The film also explores Douglass’s interactions with important women in his life, pioneers in their own right, including his first wife Anna Murray-Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; and Ida B. Wells.

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Bust in Homage), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Bust in Homage), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 

The opening activities for “Embers of Freedom” brought out key figures in the study of Douglass, including Walter O. Evans and Linda Evans, major patrons and donors to the museum; biographer David W. Blight; and Celeste-Marie Bernier, professor of black studies and personal chair in English literature at the University of Edinburgh, co-curator of “Embers of Freedom,” and co-author of “If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection.”

Nettie Washington Douglass—the great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass and great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington—was also in attendance.

Blight delivered a compelling lecture. The Yale University historian has authored several books about Douglass. He said he had just finished one when he learned about the Evans collection. After wading through the materials, which he called “extraordinary,” he realized he was going to have to write another one.

Based in large part on the Evans collection, Blight’s “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (2018) won the Pulitzer Prize.

Standard museum programming accompanied the Oct. 3 opening—the lecture, along with an artist panel and exhibition tour. In addition, there was the not-so-standard marching band performance.

French-born, Paris-based Barontini participated in the panel discussion and presented “The Golden March,” which is composed of two projects: the performance and a series of site-specific installations.

The special guests, artists, and curators stood with students, museum goers, and the general public lining the sidewalk in front of the museum awaiting the performance, a collaboration between Barontini and the Savannah High School Marching Band, which is directed by Federico Foster. Then a whistle sounded kicking off a high-stepping processional of musicians and dancing majorettes.

Wearing a floor-length cape emblazoned with a collaged image of Douglass, a young drum major led the band out of the museum, down Turner Avenue and back again, up the entire block in front of the museum.

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, “The Golden March,” Performance with Savannah High School Marching Band, SCAD Museum of Art, Oct. 3, 2019

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Escape to Freedom), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 

Marching in unison, the band proceeded up the street carrying flags and banners designed by Barontini (he was also responsible for the drum major’s artful cape).

Along the way, the teenage collaborators paused at “jewel boxes” embedded in the museum’s front facade. At each of the glass display cases, the drum major unveiled installations by Barontini. The large-scale textile works feature digital collage-based images sourced from the Douglass archive.

Barontini’s practice mines history, exploring traditions of ritual, pageantry, and celebration throughout the African diaspora.

In December, he was named the 2020 artist-in-residence for the LVMH Métiers d’Art and he also joined a new gallery.

Mariane Ibrahim is now representing him in North America. The Chicago gallery describes Barontini’s work as “a coalescence of classical painting and contemporary fragments” and adds that his “subject matter includes classical iconography, colonial history and the visual culture of the French Caribbean rooted in African ancestry.”

At the SCAD Museum of Art, Barontini’s ceremonial parade and installations paid tribute to the life, legacy, and iconography of Douglass, emphasizing the contemporary relevance of the complex historic figure.

“I wanted to work with young people to show that the problems continue now,” Barontini told the New York Times. “It was a way to connect Douglass’s abolitionist work with our time.” CT

 

“The Golden March” installation vignettes are on display in the jewel boxes at SCAD Museum of Art (Oct. 3, 2019-Jan. 19, 2010)

“Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom” (Oct. 3, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020) was curated by Humberto Moro, curator of SCAD exhibitions; Ben Tollefson, assistant curator of SCAD exhibitions; Ariella Wolens, assistant curator of SCAD exhibitions; Storm Janse Van Rensburg, former head curator of SCAD exhibitions, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, professor of black studies and personal chair in English literature at the University of Edinburgh

 

BOOKSHELF
Celeste-Marie Bernier is co-author with Andrew Taylor of “If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection.” David W. Blight authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Blight has written many more books, several on Frederick Douglass. “The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art” documents the art collection of Walter O. Evans.

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March,” 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Escape to Freedom), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


Artist Raphaël Barontini (white shirt) stands with onlookers during parade performance of “The Golden March,” staged at SCAD Museum of Art in collaboration with Savannah High School Marching Band, Oct. 3, 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, “The Golden March,” 2019 (mixed media). | Courtesy of the artist, Commissioned by SCAD Museum of Art

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Black Night of Slavery), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric, wood stone, and sand), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, Installation view of “The Golden March” (Black Night of Slavery), 2019 (mixed media, digital print on fabric, wood stone, and sand), Jewel Box, SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2019. | Photography Courtesy of SCAD

 


RAPHAEL BARONTINI, “The Golden March,” Performance with Savannah High School Marching Band, SCAD Museum of Art, Oct. 3, 2019 | Photography Courtesy of SCAD