Roberto Visani’s sculptures reconfigure slavery in art history | Art review | Seven days
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, Roberto Visani didn’t just lock himself in with a new pup or sourdough starter. He began working on an art project that would cover 19th century history and 21st century design technology. Over the next two years, the Brooklyn-based artist has created a collection of sculptures that is nothing short of remarkable, both aesthetically and conceptually.
The results of Visani’s pursuit can be seen in his solo exhibition, titled “Form/Reform,” at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
Installed in the vast front gallery, Visani’s works are larger-than-life figures who sit, stand or kneel; one is a bust on a pedestal and another is a frieze of horses and riders on a wall. At first glance, these are standard art tropes. But a closer look reveals stark discrepancies.
First, these sculptures are made of cardboard—hundreds of laser-cut triangles hot-glued together to form semi-abstract versions of the human body. Second, most characters wear handcuffs or shackles – cardboard ties that hang from their wrists. On some sculptures, the chains are broken.
Visani researched historical depictions of slave art and, using 3D modeling software and a laser cutter, reconstructed them in fractal – or “reform” – form. His sculptures are assembled from what he calls “cardboard slave kits”.
Perhaps the most spectacular figure is “the cardboard slave kit, bussa mix”. (All Visani titles are lowercase.) With arms in a hallelujah gesture, chains broken, the male figure stands over eight feet tall. It is based on a public sculpture in Barbados, the “Emancipation Statue”, created by Karl Broodhagen in 1985 after the island gained independence from Britain. The wall text explains that the bronze statue is commonly referred to as Bussa, the name of a slave who helped inspire a revolt in 1816.
Visani’s “Cardboard Slave Kit, Abolitionist Mix” is heartbreaking. The male figure is kneeling with the cuffed hands raised in supplication and the face tilted upwards. It is modeled “on the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade created in 1787 [by Josiah Wedgwood]”, reads the wall text, “one of the most iconic and significant images depicting an enslaved person in the history of art.” In the original relief medallion, the accompanying words were ” Am I not a man and a brother?”
It is a difficult image to contemplate; even with cardboard, Visani conveys the agony of servitude.
For that viewer, the piece also evokes a contemporary parallel: former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, in 2016, during a pre-game national anthem to protest police brutality. Neither Visani nor curator David Rios Ferreira reference this event in their written statements, but Ferreira acknowledges that the work “raises questions about the impact of slavery on body, mind and community – questions that disproportionately affect black people and continue to reverberate in today’s socio-political landscape.”
The inspiration for the “Cardboard Slave Kit, Freed Mix” was “The Freedman”, a sculpture created by John Quincy Adams Ward in 1863 following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Ward, an abolitionist, posed his male figure in a somewhat relaxed position: seated, his left elbow resting on his left leg and his torso turned to the right as if gazing into the future. His handcuffs are broken. And yet, as the man is seated and semi-naked, his transitional status between bondage and freedom is evident.
One of the two female figures here would be almost get comfortable in the wing of a museum’s classic sculpture: “cardboard slave kit, power mix h”. Indeed, this 8-foot-plus lady is literally sculptural, inspired by Hiram Powers’ “The Greek Slave” of 1843. According to the wall text, it is “one of the best-known sculptures of the 19th century” .
The National Gallery of Art, where the marble original resides, goes further, saying it is “the most famous American sculpture of all time”. Her notoriety was due in part to pruriance—Powers’ sculpture is said to have been the first fully nude female sculpture publicly displayed in the United States. But more specifically, it was linked to the vehement debate over American slavery.
“The Greek Slave” was so famous,” notes the National Gallery, that it “permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and chewing tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music.”
Visani’s “cardboard slave kit, carp mix” is a bust after an 1873 sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, “Why Naître Esclave!” (“Why born a slave!”). The French artist executed a series of busts in preparation for a fountain sculpture in Paris. This black model represents Africa; in the complete sculpture of the fountain, its foot bears a broken chain. Visani only recreates the woman’s head and torso, with a white drape (cardboard) revealing a breast.
When “Form/Reform” opened, Visani’s “liberty blend” mural was unfinished. He completed the piece in six weeks, a process that included creating a support cross-section to support the 127-by-166-by-67-inch mural. Now fully assembled, the work is based on Eastman Johnson’s 1862 painting “A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves.” Considered unique to its time, the painting depicts a family of slaves – man, woman and child – with agency, seeking freedom on horseback.
Visani’s use of cardboard, a ubiquitous commercial packaging material, emphasizes the fundamental tenet of slavery: commodified humans as the economic engine of capitalism. The artist further invites viewers “to be part of the creation and to consider complex questions around race, technology, representation and slavery today”. Several cardboard slave kits come flat-packed in – what else? — brown cardboard boxes for DIY assembly at home. They are available for purchase at the museum for $3,500.