Project Background

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The Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison believes deeply in the power of art to inform, enlighten, and explore our shared history. The museum also acknowledges the often complex and difficult past associated with works such as public monuments and their role in glorifying racism in America. Over the last several years the Chazen has developed a reputation for activating innovative new approaches to its collection, exhibition programming and outreach. One of the key elements of this approach is to partner with contemporary artists, campus colleagues and community stakeholders to better illuminate and understand, in new context, historical works in its collection. The re:mancipation project will be the most significant realization of this approach to date.

re:mancipation is a collaborative project planned over the next two years with the Chazen Museum of Art (University of Wisconsin-Madison), artist Sanford Biggers, and MASK ConsortiumMASK is a coalition of artists & cultural institutions sharing knowledge to promote a more complete understanding of human history through the digital preservation of art and artifacts. Founding members include Artist Sanford Biggers, and Eric Edwards, Executive Director of the Cultural Museum of African Art. The project will engage with a sculpture in the museum collection, “Emancipation Group,” by American sculptor Thomas Ball, which depicts Abraham Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed man. Using the sculpture as its central focus, re:mancipation will seek to explore, dissect, and better understand racism in America. Final deliverables throughout the multi-year endeavor will include the creation of a new artwork by Biggers, a documentary about the project, both in-person and virtual exhibitions, the development of an extensive national symposium series, a specific toolkit and training for K-12 teachers around using this project as a vehicle for engaging with challenging topics in the classroom, and the production of supporting research, archival, and educational material.

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The unique partnership with Sanford Biggers and MASK Consortium came together serendipitously after several years spent evaluating and researching “Emancipation Group” in anticipation of a reinterpretation project. In 2018, the Chazen’s curatorial staff began a deep dive on the sculpture’s history and similar monument projects across the country. In 2019 Sanford Biggers visited the Chazen during an exhibition of his work. Biggers is known for engaging a wide range of artists, disciplines, and techniques in his extraordinary body of work. Chazen staff showed Biggers and his creative partner, Mark Hines, the sculpture during their visit and began a preliminary conversation of how we might collaborate to recontextualize the sculpture in our galleries. In the fall of 2020 Biggers reached out to the Chazen’s director to gauge the museum’s interest in exploring a much more ambitious undertaking – something that would broaden the scope well beyond the museum’s collection and galleries. Biggers believes that the Chazen, a university art museum with a diverse set of audiences on a large Big Ten campus, is the ideal partner for this interrogative project. We feel strongly that this shared approach will yield a result that honors both our mission as a teaching institution, and the artist’s creative vision.
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re:mancipation has the potential to be transformational not only for our museum, but for all institutions and communities reckoning with monuments. We can facilitate conversations about systemic and structural racism, history, and representation, grounded in a deep focus on this object. We can bring the object forward in time through the response from Sanford Biggers and contextualize it at the time of its making by exploring the iconography used to create this work. That iconography, and the history (or provenance) of the object (and others like it) is a traditional art historical tool we would now appropriate to tease out a more nuanced story about our nation’s history, and how we can individually, and as communities, understand the world in which we live. Imagine students of all ages leaving an engagement with this project feeling empowered to better “read,” understand, and interpret their own neighborhoods and communities. We feel the scope of such an endeavor should reach well beyond the museum, Madison or our immediate community. Indeed, engaging with this object, and the fundamental issues intersecting around it, is crucial to contributing to and furthering the understanding and dismantling of systemic racism in the United States.

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Principal Activities, Timeline, and Expected Outcomes:
Activities for this project are already underway. Biggers, MASK Consortium and a documentary crew were onsite at the Chazen for a week in July 2021 to study and capture 3-D scans of the Ball sculpture and 30 other relevant artworks in the collection. In the fall of 2022, the Chazen Museum of Art will debut a portion of the documentary, followed by an in-person exhibition centered around Biggers’ new artwork, which will open to the public in January 2023. In addition to activities at the Chazen, long-term goals for the project include traveling the exhibition, conducting 10-12 symposia across the country to invite conversation and contemplation, and the development of teaching and learning tools (in collaboration with faculty in the Curriculum Department of the UW-Madison School of Education) based on re:mancipation. The goals and activities for this project are ambitious, but the Chazen, Sanford Biggers and MASK Consortium believe strongly that addressing racism in America begins with a thorough, determined, and passionate examination of our shared history.

Project Timeline

  • Project start date: Q2 2021
    Seeking funding support and engaged with various interested foundations
  • Microsite Launch: Q4 2021
  • Virtual Exhibition I: Q4 2021
  • Campus Performance Art + Installation: Q2 2022
    Re-engage campus & community in early ’22 with performance art and installations
  • Physical + Virtual Exhibition: Q1 2023
  • Exhibition Tour: 2024: project conclusion and touring exhibition start 

Project Renaming

This project seeks to unpack various layers of institutional racism, even those encoded in the hierarchies of our capitalization. Though the project has previously been referenced by its participants as RE:Mancipation, Re:mancipation, and RE:mancipation, these all place emphasis, and superiority on either the reworking, on slavery (mancipation), or on the historically questionable act of emancipation in America.  Invoking artistic license, we will henceforth refer to the project as ‘re:mancipation’ as a leveling-force to past and present competing agents in hopes to better achieve a common ground for productive dialogue.