UW-Madison exhibit has 'something new to say' about race and art

Gayle Worland, Wisconsin State Journal, February 4, 2023

When incoming museum director Amy Gilman first saw “Emancipation Group” on display at the Chazen Museum of Art in 2017, she reacted like many visitors: She stopped in her tracks.


The tabletop marble statue, created in 1873 by American sculptor Thomas Ball, felt distressingly out of context. The half-life-size work depicts an elegantly dressed Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand and the other hovering over a man freed from slavery, half-clothed, barefoot and crouching at Lincoln’s feet among broken links of chain.


That piece sparked an idea that turned into a multiyear, multimedia, cross-disciplinary and multicity project. One of the most public facets of that undertaking is “re:mancipation,” a new exhibition at the UW-Madison museum running through June 25.


 A video plays on a huge wall behind Thomas Ball’s “Emancipation Group” sculpture at the Chazen Museum of Art as part of “re:mancipation,” a new exhibition that looks at the intersection of museums and race.  

The “re:mancipation” exhibit is so significant that it likely will change the way the Chazen displays and educates students and the public about art, Gilman said.


Displayed at the museum since 1976, Ball’s “Emancipation Group” is a “difficult and problematic depiction of racial hierarchy in America,” Gilman said.

Through a two-year, collaborative process, “we’ve come to a place where we have something new to say  not just about the object, but about having a conversation about race, about how race is embedded in many of the objects that we have collected, and to think about systemic racism, which is so hard to talk about.”


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