Interrogating History

© David Hammons (b. 1943), Untitled, elephant dung, silver paint, iron chain, 1983–1985, 5¼ × 77/8 × 6¼ in. Courtesy of the collection of Nicholas Rohatyn and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. © Abraham and others unknown in the workshop of Alexander Petrie, Salver, hammered and cast silver, 1742–1768, 71/8 in. Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

The theory and practice of material culture studies teaches us that objects are never neutral, but contain the social and cultural biographies of people who made, sold, and used them. But often the opulence and beauty of objects blind us to the violence and servitude implicated in their making. House Party: R.S.V.P. B.Y.O.B., is an exhibition of leading artists, past and present, whose work is gathered together in the White Hall plantation dining room for a celebration, but more importantly, to interrogate historical legacies of enslavement and their plantation forms.

The original “big house” on Thomas and Catherine Porcher’s Berkeley County, South Carolina, plantation does not survive; it is under water. However, the dining room’s woodwork, created by enslaved artisans, is preserved at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

 But there is more at stake at this party than having a good time. It is about engaging critically with inequities of power and violence that continue as cultural legacies within American decorative arts. Each artist’s work brings its own bag of institutional critique to examine the plantation and its afterlife. Through a politics of interruption, they short circuit business as usual and make fine dining virtually impossible under these conditions.

David Hammons, a cultural general of the art world, rides in like Hannibal on his African war elephants, leaving symbolic “droppings” of wisdom in his wake. His intentional crudeness and indecorum critique the high etiquette and southern hospitality so valued by plantation elites and often mistaken for goodness. Michelle Erickson, Renee Green, Alison Saar, and Kara Walker deal with more difficult issues of violence against women and servitude in domestic space. Theaster Gates, Lonnie Holley, and Todd Johnson all mobilize the craft and self-taught art traditions, as a nod to enslaved carpenters who finished the woodwork in the White Hall dining room. House Party: R.S.V.P. B.Y.O.B. cites history the way one might sight the stars, in a constellation of meaning, that is relevant to our time as a vanishing point.