Last week, performance artists Maya Sun and Maps Glover poignantly resurrected images of American slavery on the greens of Dumbarton House in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Completed in 1800, the Federal style landmark is preserved to showcase the lifestyle of the first government officials who took office in the United States' new capital, the District of Columbia.
Supporting the post-colonial decadence were indentured servants, and while slavery in D.C. wasn't as overt as the textbook cotton-picking, plantation life that is synonymous with the South, slaves were used as chauffeurs, childcare, and to fetch groceries from the market. In fact, roughly 20 years before the Civil War, Georgetown University sold a number of slaves to settle financial debts.
However, few primary sources of slave life in D.C. remain due to loss and destruction, which is why Dumbarton House commissioned Sun to create a moment of tension at the estate. Professionals young and old, white and black gathered in the courtyard for wine and cheese, some, noticeably uncomfortable by the two artists' three-part retrospective.
The beginning was lighthearted, though short-lived as they frolicked on the front yard--Glover playing a violin and Sun seemingly care free in a floral dress, braiding Glover's hair. It was reminiscent of a Sunday on a plantation or after dusk when the master fell asleep, the slaves free to ease the pain and suffering of indentured servitude. The second part represented a harsher side of reality. Sun stood on a trading block hooded and chained--livestock--while Glover observed the scene through the reflection of a broken mirror pane as if to recall the original context of why his ancestors and other black bodies were brought to America. Later, Sun emerged from Dumbarton House dressed in a suit introducing herself as "Professor Sun." Not only was this a liberating juxtaposition to images of bondage, but it also symbolized the knowledge and power of black people, integral to the education of future souls.
"I felt appreciated by my ancestors. I was incredibly moved when I was under the hood. I was definitely in a different space than what was around me," Sun said.
From a macro lens, Sun’s performance piece was perhaps more relevant given Kanye West's comments calling slavery a choice just a couple days prior. Where Kanye chose to glaze over realities of oppression and control in the matter of a thirty second sound bite, Sun and Glover echoed two different aspects of slave life with a refusal to forget the African American experience.