Art installation examines America’s history and racial past

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Multimedia works by Yale School of Art alumnus Titus Kaphar featuring reconfigurations of two early 18th-century portraits of Elihu Yale. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)

A fall installation at the Yale University Art Gallery on the theme “American History Revisited” brings together paintings, sculptures, and photographs by several contemporary artists who reflect on American history in diverse ways.

The installation, in the Modern and Contemporary Art permanent galleries on the third floor, is designed to be in conversation with the issues explored in Carrie Mae Weems’ “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” a new work by the photographer and visual artist that was recently performed at the Yale Repertory Theatre. “Grace Notes” examines themes of social justice, race, and identity in the context of our historical moment.

Some of the artwork on view explores the roles of both the victims and profiteers of the slave trade in the founding of the United States, while others reexamine specific events from the nation’s past or contemplate the absence of African Americans from historical accounts. For instance, Weems’ photographic series “Slave Coast” alludes to the West African coast where millions of slaves were held and shipped abroad, reclaiming sites of past violence and oppression.

Martin Puryear merges purist formal language with traditional craftsmanship to create allegorical sculptures that point to centuries of slavery and raise questions about identity and culture.

The installation also questions the role that venerated American institutions such as Yale have played in the racial narrative. Many of the school’s prominent benefactors were involved and profited from the slave trade and colonialism, including its namesake, Elihu Yale. Titus Kaphar, a graduate of the Yale School of Art, uses two early 18th-century portraits of Elihu Yale from the gallery’s collection as a starting point to scrutinize and respond to his actions.

On Dec. 1, Weems will deliver the Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Lecture at the gallery.

The installation will be on view through the fall. The Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., is open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings), and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

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