I had planned to visit several of the Smithsonian museums while in D.C. I always visit museums featuring art and histories of people of color when I travel and I was excited to be immersed in art from the African continent. One of the most amazing pieces I observed was Senagalese artist Ousmane Sow’s Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave. I did not expect to discover Juneteenth symbolism at the National Museum of African Art
I initially saw the piece from facing behind and angled away from L’Ouverture’s face and I was disturbed and angry. It looked as if this giant man was forcing a crying woman into the ground. She looked so sorrowful as both of his hands gripped one of hers and I thought, “why is this sexist and brutal piece of art in this museum?” I stepped closer and gazed at the face of the “victim”, her head bowed and resting on her left palm. Her face shadowed and downcast. “Who is this brute and why is he being celebrated?”
There were more questions after walking around the large man and observing the details of his attire. He was a soldier as indicated by the fringe on his jacket and his felt bicorne. But WHO was he and WHY was he here? AND WHAT WAS HE DOING TO THIS WOMAN?!!!!!!
I walked around the museum, looking for the information panel that would answer all of my questions. The soldier is Toussaint Louverture, the general who led the Haitian Revolution. He’s actually freeing an enslaved woman in this piece, using both of his hands to assist her as she rises. I felt relief and pride that his art exists in this country and in this world at this time.
I knew nothing about L’Ouverture since Haitian history is not a subject that was taught throughout my education. It is doubtful it would have been taught since his story is one of emancipation for Black people subjected to European rule. America grapples with her own history and is unlikely to teach about a Black hero from a Black country.
Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave is mesmerizing. His face is determined and I could see his hands gently gripped this woman to help her stand and be free. Free to make choices for her life for the first time ever. By 1800, slavery and French rule had ended, Haiti was free, and L’Ouverture was it’s first African leader. I finally saw the woman as a victor, someone who had survived the horrors and brutality of slavery and was about to take her first true breath as she stood as a free woman.
How does this tie to Juneteenth? Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, most enslaved people in the Confederate states remained in bondage because their captors refused to free them. They did NOT want to give up all that free labor. Union troops arriving in Galveston Bay, Texas in 1865 delivered the news of freedom and Juneteenth was born. Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave is a perfect symbol of freedom and, other than his clothes, could easily be an American piece of art for Juneteenth. Freedom for enslaved people IS Juneteenth.
Ousmane Sow died December 1, 2016, at age 81 and I regret my delay in knowing his art and experiencing it. One of the things I love about traveling is encountering new (to me) artists and their art, adding to my knowledge and admiration. You should visit the National Museum of African Art and take the time to meet Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave. Take your time and enjoy every facet of this piece.
How are you celebrating Juneteenth?