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Looking for Frederick Douglass in Savannah
Walter Evans, who has a remarkable archive of letters, manuscripts, and other documents, by Frederick Douglass and by members of his family, at his home in Savannah, Ga., Oct. 23, 2019. Savannah is a pilgrimage destination for those interested in the abolitionist’s life, with artists interpreting his legacy in riveting shows and a film. Dylan Wilson/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter


SAVANNAH (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Frederick Douglass passed through this elegant Southern city only once, for the briefest of visits — a half-hour whistle-stop on his rail journey to a speaking engagement in Jacksonville, Florida.

It was April 1889, just the second foray into the Deep South for the great orator, five decades after his escape from Maryland as a fugitive slave. Douglass was now a major political figure, with an elegant hilltop home in Washington, D.C. Across the South, Jim Crow laws and racial terror were demolishing the gains of Reconstruction.

In Savannah, Douglass greeted the cheering crowd and reviewed a company of black troops at the railway depot, and then he was gone.

“Within a stone’s throw of one of the largest cotton-trading centers,” writes the historian David W. Blight, “and in a city with thousands of black freedmen struggling to survive and live meaningful lives amid hostile white supremacy festering around each of its beautiful squares, the locals had only glimpsed their mysterious hero.”

Today, however, Savannah is a pilgrimage site for Douglass researchers. The reason is a remarkable archive of letters, manuscripts, and other documents, by Douglass and by members of his family, in the possession of Walter O. Evans, a retired surgeon here and a major collector of African American art and letters.

The trove sheds light on the later parts of Douglass’ life, and on his family, which he rarely mentioned in his speeches and writings. It has prompted a fresh wave of Douglass studies — not least Blight’s book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize, and which is dedicated in part to the collector and his wife.

This fall, the city has become a destination for cultural tourists on the Douglass trail. The museum of the Savannah College of Art and Design is hosting three concurrent and contemporary exhibitions that open up fresh interpretations of his impact. They show how primary sources can feed not only new scholarship, but also the imagination of artists and curators concerned with issues of the present day.

One is a five-screen film and photography project, “Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour,” by the British filmmaker Isaac Julien, on view through Dec. 15 — a new edit of the work that showed earlier this year at the New York gallery Metro Pictures starring the Royal Shakespeare Company actor Ray Fearon in episodes based on Douglass’ speeches, travels, and home life.

The centerpiece exhibition, “Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom,” on view through Jan. 5, is a Douglass-themed dialogue between the archive and visual art. It features 48 modern and contemporary works — from Charles White and James van der Zee to commissions by emerging artists — together with highlights from the Evans collection, presented in vitrines and on digital browsers.

Running concurrently is “The Golden March,” a series of screenprinted fabric installations on Douglass’ life, by the French artist Raphaël Barontini.

It is possible to fill a show with photographs of Douglass, who cannily managed his image and is considered the most-photographed person in 19th-century America. He was also a theorist who connected the possibilities of photography with political representation and social progress for all people.

“Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them,” he commented about the spread of the medium. Elsewhere, he wrote: “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

The exhibitions here take liberties with Douglass, gently. Barontini screen prints him into collagelike tapestries; Fearon, remarkably well-cast, lends him emotions and affect in Julien’s film. “Portrait Frederick Douglass lapels,” by the British painter Lubaina Himid, is an anti-portrait: a colorful composition of rectangles, each of which contains a shape inspired by the lapels of the fancy suits that Douglass’s wife, Anna, sewed for his lengthy travels.

The premise is that Douglass can trigger vital new art that reaches far beyond the familiar young-firebrand and lion-in-winter photographic poses.

“Douglass believed that art was a terrain that was about emotional and imaginative, as well as intellectual and social, transformation,” said Celeste-Marie Bernier, a professor and Douglass specialist at the University of Edinburgh, who coedited a book on portraits of Douglass and who assisted in curating the group exhibition. “He saw art as the quintessential liberation, outside of social campaigning and political argument.”

The new research on Douglass stems from something close to accident. Evans, then a surgeon in Detroit, purchased from a dealer in the mid-1980s two large lots of Douglass materials. Two decades later, retired in his hometown of Savannah, Evans showed the discovery to Blight, who was in town for a talk.

It included manuscripts in Douglass’ hand of some of his later essays and speeches, but also correspondence with his children. There are years’ worth of letters from one son, Lewis Henry Douglass, to his fiancée (and later wife) Helen Amelia Loguen, including early ones from places where Lewis’ unit was stationed in the Civil War. Another son, Charles Remond Douglass, was a kind of family historian, attesting in particular to the role the whole family played in Douglass’ endeavors.

The trove is an antidote to hero-worship, Bernier explained. “It enables us to tell stories that aren’t just the mythic, epic, solitary Douglass. You see that the struggle of the family was struggle for social justice that was collaborative and collective.”

Evans said that the collection was “dormant” for many years, until he let scholars rummage in it. He knew the material was precious, but never sifted through it in detail, consumed by what he called the addiction to finding the next treasure. “I had barely looked at it until David Blight came around,” he said.

The home of Evans and his wife, Linda, on a gracious cobblestoned block in Savannah, is full of African American fine art and bespoke leather-and-linen cases of archival materials with labels such as “Malcolm X,” “Marcus Garvey,” or “Zora Neale Hurston.” Opening one on his dining table, Evans produced a letter to the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, signed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The provenance of his Douglass collection is unclear. Evans said his dealer had acquired them from another dealer, beyond which the trail ran cold.

That they were even available and affordable, he said, attested to the lack of interest of major institutions in the 1980s in African American letters — a situation that has changed. “They weren’t biting then,” he said. “But boy, are they biting now.”

The SCAD exhibition “Frederick Douglass: Embers of Freedom” is the last time Evans intends to show materials from this archive in his lifetime, because of their fragility. (They are being digitized.) Humberto Moro, one of the museum’s curators, said they offered an opportunity to connect archives and contemporary art.

“We’re inviting people to lose their fear of historical documents, and opening them up with new work,” Moro said.

In much of the art, Douglass is less subject than creative prompt. The New York sculptor Onyedika Chuke, for example, created works in foam blocks salvaged from the East River, in the form of human organs, beneath “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Appeal to Heaven” Revolutionary era flags. After perusing the manuscripts, the artist made a connection between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and international organ harvesting, calling the latter practice “a contemporary form of human trafficking.”

In another work commissioned for this show, Glyneisha Johnson, an artist in Kansas City, produced a photographic self-portrait that echoes elements from a Douglass portrait, in a tidy domestic interior of her design.

Lyle Ashton Harris’ “Obsessão II,” a vast collage of personal photos from the 1980s and 1990s, is presented here as an counterpoint to the Douglass scrapbooks — an association thought up by the curators (who also responded to the collection). “This idea of archiving oneself, one’s friends and network was important to the show, in thinking about Douglass’s family and supporters who allowed him to emerge as the leader that he was,” Moro said.

Other works make a more direct Douglass connection, such as the Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop’s self-portrait as Douglass, against an ornate backdrop. (Meleko Mokgosi, Titus Kaphar, and LaToya Ruby Frazier are among other contemporary stars in the show.)

Barontini’s installations in the museum’s street-facing window display, involve fabric screenprinted with photographs, text, and the artist’s own painted compositions.

For the premiere, he organized a carnivallike party featuring the marching band of Savannah High School that ended with “We Gon’ Be Alright,” the Kendrick Lamar song that is a Black Lives Matter anthem.

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

Julien’s film features actors in beautiful period costumes, shot at the Douglass home in Washington, D.C., in Scotland and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, alluding to the formative visits a young Douglass, still a fugitive from slavery, spent in Britain in the 1840s.

Along with Douglass, seen giving speeches but also alone, ruminative, in a forest and along a windy shore, the work foregrounds the women in his life: Anna, as ever in the home, and the white British women who supported his work.

“It was important to highlight the gendered relations in Douglass’ life,” Julien said.

Douglass ardently supported women’s rights. He attended the Seneca Falls convention, a meeting that launched the women’s suffrage movement — but also had disagreements with Susan B. Anthony. “These quarrels almost get replayed between, say, Obama and Clinton, feminism and African-American political rights,” Julien said. “These echoes of gender and race reverberate in American culture.”

Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company is planning a film adaptation of Blight’s biography, suggesting more attention to Douglass ahead. “The Douglass moment is kind of an unending moment in the fight for justice,” Bernier said, noting that even late in life, in a reactionary time, Douglass never despaired. “In this dark hour, I think he has a lot to tell us about how to continue that fight.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company






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