In putting together the exhibition,
photographer Brantley Carroll relied heavily on a layering process,
creating works that combine portraits of present-day African Americans
and historical images or objects. Thus, in “Temple of Liberty,” an
image of the U.S. Capitol—a building constructed by a good deal of
slave labor—appears on the bare chest of Charly Palmer, a contemporary
In a second work, Rendell Thomas holds a
slave badge, reminding us that this was not merely a piece of metal but
an instrument of power. A slave without identification was subject to
arrest and even harsher punishment.
Carroll is very fluid in his design of
these pieces, resulting in artworks with a range of visual contexts. In
“Slave Insurrection,” he accesses an engraver’s image of The Brookes,
a ship on which there was a slave rebellion, and digitally imprints the
image upside down on the forehead of model Napoleon Jones-Henderson.
The middle image in the triptych “Sally
for Sale” blends a transparent version of the Declaration of
Independence with a portrait shot of Nicole Blue. On one hand, it’s
easy to look through the text and see her face. On the other, the
Declaration’s words run from the very top of the artwork to its bottom.
In a purely physical sense, they have heft and substance.
Blue is portraying Sally Hemings, a
woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration
of Independence. Carroll’s ancestor, Charles Carroll, a prominent
slaveowner in Baltimore, signed this pivotal document.
“The Auction Block” displays an
engraving of a slave auction on the belly of a pregnant woman
photographed by Carroll. This visceral piece deals with separation of
mother and child in point-blank terms. Carroll’s best work, “Cross
Section of a Slave Ship,” uses images of several human models. In the
piece’s center, an engraving depicting slave quarters on a ship fits
like a mask on a woman’s face. On the border, four images of women
swirl around the primary image, forming a haunting chorus, a
remembrance of the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa across the
Carroll also pushes the discussion of
slavery in other directions, referencing documentary items that would
fit comfortably into a library. In one corner stands a trove of
archival materials including reproductions of a poster promising a
reward for returning a runaway slave, and a broadside promoting an
anti-slavery meeting held in Salem, Ohio, in 1850.
Elsewhere, Carroll displays a few photos
done in a more traditional style. An image taken on a South Carolina
plantation documents Drayton Hall, a magnificent, well-preserved
building. However, a caption informs us that slaves built the hall,
using bricks made by slaves.
“Cotton Whip” combines tangible and
intangible aspects. Here, fluffy cotton, grown in the present day,
contrasts with digitally altered images of the Brookes. Those images, faint, almost ghost-like, refer to memory and recollection.
The Whipping Post communicates
with viewers on several levels: providing relevant information,
touching them emotionally and posing critical questions. How well has
the story of slavery in the United States been told? What aspects have
been neglected? What is slavery’s impact even today?
The exhibition doesn’t offer facile
answers but initiates a discussion. It’s a step forward for Carroll,
who’s been doing photography for more than two decades, much of it
commercial. He’s shot dozens of portraits, documented connections among
people living on Syracuse streets and done other projects. The Whipping Post is his most important work to date.
It remains on display through Aug. 16 at
the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. The gallery is open
Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, call 442-2230.