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National Gallery Of Art Exhibit Touches On Region's Sordid History With Slavery

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"Bang" (1994) by Kerry James Marshall.
Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art
"Bang" (1994) by Kerry James Marshall.

The National Gallery of Art is running an exhibit connected with this weekend's March on Washington, and it delves into the region's sordid history with slavery.

When you walk into The Tower of the National Gallery, you're confronted with two of Americas most lauded presidents overseeing their sprawling Virginia plantations—dotted with little black specks. Those indistinguishable dots mark the hundreds of slaves George Washington and Thomas Jefferson "owned."

As marchers walk past the gallery this weekend many won't venture inside to remember the struggle for basic freedom that preceded the civil rights movement, but artist Kerry James Marshall says the two can't be separated.

"Yeah, there is a history and that history actually matters because you can see ways in which that history has impacts on the way people are operating in the world today. On some level a lack of knowledge of that history means that you are more vulnerable to being used and/or dismissed and marginalized," he says.

The nation's slave roots are also depicted in Marshall's portrayal of the Middle Passage, where formerly free men were plucked from Africa and herded onto ships that themselves became death chambers for countless men, women and children.

Marshall is the first living African American to have a show at the National Gallery, an honor he's using to stir uncomfortable conversations about topics that often hover just outside of today's discussions about racial politics.

"Looking at a history of a people who have been enslaved always leads to the same sort of outcome, I think, and part of it is shame. And that shameful, sort of, reality is something a lot of black folks don t want to be reminded of, and don t want to be associated with," he explains.

Curator James Meyer says he wanted the exhibit up during the anniversary of the march because Marshall raises the same questions about black economic and political participation raised by civil rights leaders a half century ago.

The exhibit is scheduled to be up until December.

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