Roberto Visani’s Sculptures Reconfigure Slavery in Art History | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Roberto Visani’s Sculptures Reconfigure Slavery in Art History

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Published April 20, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


"cardboard slave kit, freedman blend" by Roberto Visani - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "cardboard slave kit, freedman blend" by Roberto Visani

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, Roberto Visani didn't just hole up with a new puppy or sourdough starter. He got to work on an art project that would span 19th-century history and 21st-century design technology. Over the next two years, the Brooklyn-based artist created a collection of sculptures that is nothing short of remarkable, both aesthetically and conceptually.

The results of Visani's pursuit are on view in his solo show, titled "Form/Reform," at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Installed throughout the capacious front gallery, Visani's works are larger-than-life figures that sit, stand or kneel; one is a bust on a pedestal, and another is a horse-and-riders frieze on a wall. At first glance, these are standard art tropes. But a closer examination reveals radical departures.

First, these sculptures are made of cardboard — hundreds of laser-cut triangles assembled and hot-glued together to form semiabstract versions of the human body. Second, most of the figures display manacles or chains — cardboard links that dangle from their wrists. On some sculptures, the chains are broken.

Visani researched art historical depictions of enslaved people and, using 3D modeling software and a laser cutter, reconstructed them in fractal form — or "reform." His sculptures are assembled from what he calls "cardboard slave kits."

Perhaps the most dramatic figure on view is "cardboard slave kit, bussa blend." (All of Visani's titles are lowercased.) With arms in a hallelujah gesture, chains broken, the male figure is more than eight feet high. It's based on a public sculpture in Barbados, the "Emancipation Statue," created by Karl Broodhagen in 1985 after the island's independence from Great Britain. Wall text explains that the bronze statue is commonly known as Bussa, the name of a slave who helped to inspire a revolt in 1816.

Visani's "cardboard slave kit, abolitionist blend" is wrenching. The male figure kneels, manacled hands raised in supplication and face tilted upward. It is modeled "on the seal for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade created in 1787 [by Josiah Wedgwood]," reads the wall text, "one of the most iconic and significant images depicting an enslaved person in the history of art." In the original relief medallion, the words accompanying it were "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

This is a difficult image to contemplate; even with cardboard, Visani conveys the agony of bondage.

For this viewer, the piece also evokes a contemporary parallel: former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, in 2016, during a pregame national anthem to protest police brutality. Neither Visani nor curator David Rios Ferreira reference this event in their written statements, but Ferreira acknowledges that the work "raises questions about the impact of slavery on the body, mind and community — questions that disproportionately affect Black people and continue to reverberate in today's sociopolitical landscape."

"cardboard slave kit, carpeaux blend" by Roberto Visani - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "cardboard slave kit, carpeaux blend" by Roberto Visani

The inspiration for "cardboard slave kit, freedman blend" was "The Freedman," a sculpture created by John Quincy Adams Ward in 1863 following president Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Ward, an abolitionist, posed his male figure in a somewhat relaxed position: sitting, left elbow resting on his left leg, and torso turned toward the right as if looking to the future. His manacles are broken. And yet, as the man is seated and seminude, his transitional status between servitude and freedom is evident.

One of the two female figures here would almost be at home in a museum's classical sculpture wing: "cardboard slave kit, h powers blend." Indeed, this 8-foot-plus lady is literally statuesque, modeled after Hiram Powers' "The Greek Slave," from 1843. According to wall text it is "one of the most widely known sculptures of the 19th century."

The National Gallery of Art, where the marble original resides, goes further, arguing that it is "the most famous American sculpture ever." Its notoriety was due in part to prurience — Powers' carving was reportedly the first publicly exhibited, fully nude female sculpture in the U.S. But more to the point, it related to the vehement debate about American slavery.

So renowned was "The Greek Slave," notes the National Gallery, that it "permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and chewing-tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music."

Visani's "cardboard slave kit, carpeaux blend" is a bust based on a Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux sculpture from 1873, "Pourquoi Naître Esclave!" ("Why Born Enslaved!"). The French artist executed a series of busts in preparation for a fountain sculpture in Paris. This Black model represents Africa; in the complete fountain sculpture, her foot wears a broken chain. Visani re-creates only the woman's head and torso, with white (cardboard) drapery baring one breast.

At the opening of "Form/Reform," Visani's mural "liberty blend" was unfinished. He completed the piece over six weeks, a process that included the creation of a backing cross section to support the 127-by-166-by-67-inch mural. Now fully assembled, the work is based on Eastman Johnson's 1862 painting "A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves." Considered unique in its era, the painting depicts a slave family — man, woman and child — with agency, pursuing freedom on horseback.

Visani's use of cardboard, a ubiquitous commercial packaging material, underscores the foundational principle of slavery: commodified humans as the economic engine of capitalism. The artist further invites viewers "to be part of the creation and to consider complex issues around race, technology, representation and slavery today." Several cardboard slave kits are packed flat in — what else? — brown cardboard boxes for DIY assembly at home. They're available for purchase at the museum for $3,500.

Art historian Renée Ater discusses the artworks referenced by Visani in a Zoom lecture on Thursday, April 21, at 7 p.m. Register at brattleboromuseum.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bodies of Work"

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