“Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel about colonialism in the Central African Republic, charts the journey of steamboat captain Charles Marlow up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company, and his eventual encounter with Kurtz, a once-idealistic trader who now holds the native population under his sway.
Although Kurtz’s manipulative and exploitative actions are shocking, he is only doing openly what other colonists do behind a smokescreen of benevolence.
Eight decades after it was written, the book inspired the film “Apocalypse Now.” And now, it is the inspiration for an exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture.
From an idea to an exhibition
Guest Curator Rehema Barber is quick to point out that her exhibition, “Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness,” is not a literal interpretation of Conrad’s book, but is inspired by a concept she found woven into the book’s fabric – that an empire succeeds by controlling four systems: economic, linguistic, mythological and psychological.
Each work in this show emphasizes at least one of these systems.
“Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness” puts forward the idea that imperialism in Africa continues to affect our understanding of blackness, in America and globally.
Barber says the show is also about how blackness “has been constructed psychologically, how we talk about it, the language with which we speak about it. How all of those things come together to form half-truths and mythologies.”
The topic may be difficult, but most of the work is accessible.
The exhibition is filled with installations, videos, paintings, sculpture, photographs and more that engage viewers in many ways. Some of the work is dramatic, some funny, some pensive.
Much of the work on display is about myths surrounding black males and how those myths can have alarming consequences.
In a late January interview at the Gantt, Barber talked about the myth of the black male’s superhuman strength. She cited an October 2014 study in the journal “Social Psychological & Personality Science,” which indicates that white people perceive black people as having superhuman or magical powers, with one result being that doctors often prescribe their black patients insufficient pain medication.
In Zoë Charlton’s delicate mixed media works on paper, men bear houses, trees and more on their backs. These men are naked in every sense – stripped and vulnerable, but they are also virile and visions of artistic beauty.
Shaun Leonardo’s ceiling-suspended installation “Bull in the Ring” is a circle of black-painted Styrofoam heads wearing football helmets.
Leonardo’s work refers to several sports – football, boxing, bullfighting – all enterprises in which a powerful, graceful person or creature displays enormous strength, but ultimately trades momentary glory for a diminished life.
In Heather Hart’s “The New Numinous Negro,” performer André D. Singleton is an oracle on a makeshift throne; museum visitors can press gold on him (or on the throne itself if he’s not there) and make a wish.
Hart’s piece is based on the idea of “the Magical Negro,” a term coined by Spike Lee to describe the tiresome Hollywood habit of creating a token black character who offers wisdom and guidance to the white lead character – for instance, Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby” and numerous other films.
Slavery, escape, freedom
For “Bato Disik,” Andrea Chung has created little boats from sugar that float in a pool of water; over the course of the exhibition, the boats will dissolve.
These boats symbolize lives lost during the forced migration of Africans to Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands to work as slaves in the sugar industry. The installation also acknowledges the eventual freedom some of them experienced as fishermen on the island of Mauritius.
Serge Alain Nitegeka’s “Tunnel X” is a room-size installation of random passageways.
Nitegeka sees tunnels as spaces of migration and transition. As visitors navigate “Tunnel X,” they have to make choices about the paths they will take.
In this work, the artist seeks to communicate that immigrants, unable to see their destination, operate on faith and trust in order to move forward.
In his “New Americans” series, Jason Patterson has created richly detailed, nearly life-size drawings, based on daguerreotypes from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that depict anonymous, affluent black women of the Reconstruction period.
The photographs are in massive frames on which are carved excerpts from Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Mother.” The frames have handles, which make them look like drawers from a map or document case – as if the viewer is in a rare document room, coming across these stereotype-defying photographs for the first time.
Considering skin color
JC Lenochan’s “Melanin Chronicles: The pursuit of melanin ‘standard kit’ ” looks at the economic implications of skin color.
This piece is a briefcase full of creams, soaps and other products for lightening or darkening skin.
This work speaks to our tangled perceptions of skin color – the fact that, if you are white, tanned skin symbolizes affluence and the ability to be on perpetual vacation, but if you are black, dark skin is perceived as an impediment to success and acceptance.
“Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness” is not an angry or confrontational show; it is about opening up a space for discussion.
“This is a powerful exhibition that will challenge visitors to think differently after seeing it,” said Gantt president and CEO David Taylor. “My hope is that guests will walk away with a positive sense of how to move forward resolving issues – not only focused on race relations in America, but global racial conflicts as well.”