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Renée Ater to Examine Monument to Nation’s Slave Past in April 11 Goldberg Lecture

Posted by on Tuesday, April 2, 2019 in Events, HART, Lectures, News, Vanderbilt University, VRC.

Renée Ater, associate professor emerita, American Art, The University of Maryland, studies monuments to the nation’s slave past. In a research project funded by the Smithsonian Institution, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Getty Research Institute, Ater is documenting twenty-five memorials and monuments to slavery and its victims in twenty-three states across the South, Midwest, and Northeast.

pathofthornsdetailAter will deliver the Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Lecture on Thursday, April 11, at 4:10 pm in Cohen 203, with a reception to follow in the atrium. Her lecture, “Death, Remembrance, and the Slave Past,” is about a place of reckoning with the slave past, of erasure and discovery, of acknowledgement and reclamation.

Dedicated in 2014 with an elaborate community celebration, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, contains contemporary gravestones of unidentified adults and children, an open structure named the Place of Remembrance, and a monumental statue, Mario Chiodo’s Path of Thorns and Roses, a towering series of men and women cast in bronze.

During the American Civil War, the cemetery served as the burial place for more than 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria from surrounding slave states to escape the horrors of bondage. After the war, it fell into disrepair, eventually displaced from city maps and forgotten, with a gas station built over the site in the 1950s. Rediscovered in the 1980s through a chance find in an archived newspaper, the cemetery became the focus of intense interest with archaeological excavations beginning in the late 1990s. The memorial marks the graves, commemorates the dead, and attempts to represent the anguish of the slave experience.

freedmenscemeteryAter’s lecture investigates the recovery of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in the twenty-first century. Several ideas frame her talk: the cultural power of the dead body to do work in the present; the absence of a name connected to the dead body and the compulsion to name the deceased in order to anchor and memorialize the dead in the past, present, and future; a community’s desire to reckon with and monumentalize the slave past; and the dialectic between death and hope/freedom in visual and rhetorical forms.

Currently a senior fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, Ater is working on her digital project, Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past: Race, Memorialization, Public Space, and Civic Engagement, and investigating how we visualize, interpret, and engage the slave past through contemporary monuments to slavery created for public spaces.

*Detail from Mario Chiodo’s Path of Thorns and Roses, bronze; and full view of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial (2014), Alexandria, VA.

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