Past Collection Highlight - Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson UntitledFred Wilson's work challenges us to take notice of unseen peoples and untold histories-particularly in relation to the experience of African-Americans. As the U.S. representative to the 2003 Venice Biennale, Wilson turned his attention to the largely unrecognized presence of Africans in Renaissance Venice.

Some of the issues raised in Wilson's complex Biennale installation are encapsulated in this untitled print of the same year. Here, Wilson superimposes photographic reproductions of two found objects: an engraved historical view of Venice and a painted, sculptural "Blackamoor." This term referred to African Muslims or any dark-skinned immigrants, many of whom supported the Venetian economy as skilled craftsmen, slaves, and even gondoliers.

Though their voices are absent from histories of the city, the image of the Moor as an exoticized slave persists in Venice today. Decorative sculptures of turbaned, servile figures, similar to the one pictured here, can be found throughout the city, lending faux grandeur to hotel foyers and advertising luxury goods. Nevertheless, Wilson feels that these figures, like the historical population they stereotype, are overlooked as "part of the furniture."

Wilson literally brings the marginalized figure of the Moor to the forefront of this work, where he cannot be overlooked. Furthermore, the artist fuses the transparent image of the African to that of the gondola, the emblematic icon of Venice. Has Wilson now made it impossible for us to see the famed gondola without considering the forgotten face of the gondolier? If so, can art train our eyes to also notice the Africans, Muslims, and other immigrants who live in the margins of Western societies today?

Karla Niehus
Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions