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Artist confronts ‘shameful’ slavery history

October 13, 2018

STAMFORD — Visitors to Shelby Head’s third solo exhibition are encouraged to put on a pair of the white gloves displayed near the entrance.

The gloves serve a practical purpose — guests can handle some of the art — but Head is up to something more provocative: the garments reference the same-colored ones worn by slaves once owned by her family.

Head’s family history is at the heart of her new exhibit, “An Infrastructure of Silence,” which opens on Saturday at the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery in downtown Stamford.

“The institution of slavery has affected my family throughout the generations,” Head said. “They had plantations and owned slaves. It was a very small community, and everybody married everybody else. You can see why I have such a deep history into slavery, because that was the community.”

Gallery patrons won’t need to read between the lines to learn of Head’s history, as it’s all written down, in a collection of frames that include images of her ancestors, and their ties to slavery. One image is of Head as a child, alongside her mother and father, and two brothers, though the heads of each of her siblings is cut out of the image.

Head’s work deals with the shame of her family’s strong connection to the institution of slavery, which she only recently discovered. After her mother died, Head found files in their home on the family’s history, going back multiple generations.

Head traced her family’s slave ownership history all the way back to her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather William Warren, a slave owner in Kentucky in the 1700s.

She also discovered her ancestors lived on a plantation named Eothen, later Malvern Hill in Kentucky, and that more than 10 slaves were documented to have worked and lived there for the 103 years her family called it home.

Head said her immediate family never discussed their ancestor’s connection to slavery, which made the discovery even more shocking.

“We didn’t talk in my family,” she said. “We didn’t say anything about anything.”

Fernando Alvarez, the gallery owner, said Head’s work is “challenging and deep.”

Nonetheless, Alvarez said several associates of the gallery have told him the subject matter of Head’s work is too controversial.

“I didn’t believe so,” Alvarez said. “I thought that it was an important topic to talk about.”

Others have wondered if presenting an exhibit by a white woman about racism toward blacks is problematic.

Again, Alvarez disagrees.

“History is everybody’s. It happened…it needs to be told as many times as possible. It’s the only way we’re going to push the needle forward for change,” he said.

Alvarez, the mastermind behind the giant heroin spoon sculpture protest at Purdue Pharma over the summer, is not one to shirk from controversial or provocative art.

“If I went as far as getting arrested for the spoon, I will go as far as giving the artists we represent a platform,” he said.

Besides the personal details about Head’s family history, the exhibit also grapples with institutional racism in the United States.

One of Alvarez’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is called, “Dynamic Entry,” and is simply a collection of nine fiberglass panels made by Head, with washers and screws attached to them, mimicking the construction of police shields and riot gear.

One of the reference points for the piece is a painting by Robert Longo that depicts riot police behind shields in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.

“This is very much with the times,” Alvarez said.

Another of his favorites is “The Wall,” a collection of three cement panels, meant to symbolize the Detroit Eight Mile Wall, a longstanding symbol of segregation in that city.

Head described her own work as “uncomfortable.”

“It’s in your face and it really confronts critical issues,” she said. “I want people to be uncomfortable.”

Since she started working on the exhibit, Head said two people have told her about their family’s ties to slavery, a subject they had not broached with others in the past. Having that discussion is exactly what Head is hoping to accomplish.

“We need to start talking, as white people,” she said. “African Americans are speaking and have been screaming … I welcome the conversation. I think we need to do more of it.”

The opening reception for “An Infrastructure of Silence” is from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, and will feature spiritual music from Brooklyn-based singer Sheniqua Trotman. The exhibit runs until Nov. 17.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com

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