Slavery ads help put historical art in context, professor says
Charmaine Nelson delivered lecture at Confederation Centre of the Arts
An art historian says her research into slavery has given her a better understanding of historical Canadian art as it pertains to Black people.
Charmaine Nelson, a professor of art history at NSCAD University in Halifax and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, gave a lecture last month at the Confederation Centre of the Arts entitled Fugitive Slave Advertisements and/as Portraiture in late-18th- and early 19th-century Canada.
I said to myself, if you don't understand slavery, you don't understand how these images are working.— Charmaine Nelson
The topic came about through her interest in representations of Black women in historical Canadian art, she said in an interview with Mainstreet P.E.I. host Matt Rainnie.
"I realized that I couldn't do my analysis any justice, I couldn't do the artwork any justice without understanding the context of transatlantic slavery, because so many of the people that had been represented were enslaved," she said.
"So I said to myself, if you don't understand slavery, you don't understand how these images are working. You don't understand who they were and how they even came to be in a high art portrait or as a figure of study, you know, in a watercolour. You don't understand that unless you understand slavery."
Nelson said the ads are "tragic and fascinating at the same time." They are written by slave owners trying to sell or recapture slaves who have run away.
"You have owners who are trying to hunt them, to recapture them through the mechanism of the press. Meaning what? They would literally run ads and papers, notices, describing the person, the enslaved person who has run away."
Many of the descriptions not only give physical characteristics such as height or shade of skin colour, but also might give an indication of their talent and intelligence.
For example, one ad from Quebec described a slave as a very good violin player. Another refers to a slave being able to speak different languages.
"The Europeans really look at the intelligence and sophistication of the Africans that they're enslaving," Nelson said.
"So here's the thing. We're dealing with incredibly sophisticated, incredibly intelligent people who also know how to watch and observe the habits of the slave owners, which is how they're able to escape them."
Nelson said it's important to document all the history, beyond just the Underground Railroad when Canada was seen as "the good guys."
"It really is a practice of historical hypocrisy, if you will, because the archives are not bereft of this information. Why? Because enslaved people were considered property and people document their property."
Nelson's lecture and others can be seen at www.fieldtrip.art.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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With files from Mainstreet P.E.I.