Radcliffe Bailey’s Maroons
In Radcliffe Bailey’s (NAP #28) new exhibition, Maroons, on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, the Atlanta-based artist challenges the dominant history of slavery, and probes the unexpected cultural interactions that it inadvertently promoted. The show’s title references the “maroon” communities of escaped African slaves that formed illicit settlements throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The English name for these “maroons” comes from the Taíno word símaran, a word describing the flight of an arrow. Taíno is the indigenous culture and language of Caribbean islands like Hispaniola that the colonists first made landfall on, making it an appropriate root for the term. The title also primes viewers for the issues of displacement, diaspora, and migration that the works in this show primarily engage. – Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor
Installation view showing Vessel, 2012 (left), tarp, iron, vintage model ship, wicker basket and glass, 120 x 188 x 89 inches; and Pensive, 2013 (right), bronze and rough-sawn fir logs, 58 x 39 ¼ x 45 ¼ inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.
The first gallery in the exhibition contains the works Vessel and Pensive. The former includes a model ship, sailing across a map that is created from a worn tarp, and floating amid wicker baskets of broken glass. The piece evokes the transatlantic journey that brought millions of enslaved Africans to the New World, and the violent ruptures that this action engendered. Facing it is the bronze life-size figure of W.E.B. Du Bois, realized in the position of Rodin’s The Thinker. In his reflective stance, and position facing Vessel, the activist and scholar is enacting a meditative consideration of “double consciousness”—his theory that African Americans constitute a double sense of self, and their continual struggle to reconcile the two cultures that compose their identity. This notion of duality sets the tone for the revisionist goals of Bailey’s work, and how we might reconsider the established historical narrative via the maroon communities.
So often history portrays enslaved Africans as brought to the New World, where they are chained and shackled on plantations, without any agency. However, tens and even hundreds of thousands of captives asserted their free will by revolting against their captors and forming illicit communities beyond the reaches of the European settlements. Their ability to avoid recapture was often due to their retrieval into the thick forests and dense swamps that were impenetrable to European pursuers. Thus in the US, the Savannah River and the Mississippi River Deltas were especially popular sites of maroon encampments. These locales are referenced by the life-size crocodile that is the centerpiece of Bailey’s On Your Way Up. In some cases these groups of escaped slaves fought open wars against colonists’ forces, as is the case with one famous instance in Florida, when a group was granted freedom in an agreement that predates the Emancipation Proclamation.
In part, the success of the maroons was based on the relative ignorance of the Europeans who brought groups of captured Africans to the New World. The chattel slavery that was practiced on colonial plantations made slaves anonymous property. But many of these Africans were prisoners of war—trained warriors, soldiers, and mercenaries—who were not inclined to serve as forced laborers by their own free will once they arrived. Given their military backgrounds, organizing a successful rebellion and escape was well within their aptitude, and became a persistent problem for American slave owners. In Bailey’s Clotilde, the name of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States, these “tools” take the shape of machetes, ladders, and paddles—symbols of warfare and movement. They are concealed beneath a camouflaging layer of black sand, hinting at the ability for subversion that was hidden just below the surface.
While the maroons were constantly hunted, they also became autonomous communities that Europeans would trade with, exchanging dried fish and grains for knives and guns—a practice that one would think antithetical to the Europeans’ goals of ever recapturing them. However, it is indicative of their power and autonomy as capable forces to be reckoned with. Their ability to evade enslavement and ‘wield the reins’ may be alluded to in Ascent, in which a wooden hand emerges from a black panel, and effortlessly grips a set of ropes between a single finger and thumb. Today, some of the fugitive settlements the maroons established continue to exist as cities-within-cities, in Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America and the US—places where captives were brought in large numbers to work on plantations.
Owing in part to the maroons’ tendency to ally with indigenous communities, joined together in political unions against the slave-seeking colonists, a hybrid mix of spiritual systems also flourished from their interactions. Merging the spiritual traditions of their native Africa with those of the indigenous populations and some Christian elements, they created their own festival and pageant traditions, an idiosyncratic mix of shared and imported identities and memories. Examples of these can be seen in the Afro-Caribbean traditions of Santería, or the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. Bailey’s large wall-mounted work Congo evokes the practices of the latter, referencing the limbs that became votive offerings given as thanks for miraculous cures. One Brazilian church in particular is noted for a large room of similar offerings, and is located in Salvador, Brazil—one of the largest ports of the transatlantic slave trade, and, not incidentally, the site of the largest and most enduring maroon settlements.
The maroons’ histories of resistance are ones that have long been suppressed and hidden. With the interest and exploration of those like Bailey, they are also ones that we can begin to unravel, and to reconsider their implications for our own identities and communities today. In light of the triumphant colonial narrative that is often viewed as dominant from a historical perspective, it is instructive to remember that these groups constituted a direct threat to the colonial enterprise from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, from Brazil, the Caribbean, and Central America, to the Southern US.
Radcliffe Bailey (b. 1968) lives and works in Atlanta, GA. A solo traveling exhibition of his work, Memory as Medicine, was exhibited at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA in 2011, before traveling to the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, and the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Bailey’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA among others.
Radcliffe Bailey: Maroons is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York through February 15th.
Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.