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Viewers who read the wall texts at the Walters learn that though Africans were sold as slaves to Europe, their children were free. That’s why many of the African figures in the 16th-century painting are identifiable by their capes as free men. One — who may be João de Sá Panasco, who worked his way up from slave and jester to gentleman — is shown riding a horse and wearing the symbol of the Order of St. James.
Walking through the exhibit, Spicer explained that she didn’t want to rehash some of the mistakes she observed in an exhibit titled “Black Is Beautiful” that was shown in Amsterdam a few years ago. The show didn’t openly address slavery and prejudice, and was “a big whitewash, almost literally” in its apparent concern about making white visitors comfortable, she said.
“There were a lot of pressures on me to, in some way, do something of the same thing here, but I just — that was not my sense of the audience, and so I was just determined to play it straight,” she said. “Once you allow yourself to talk about it and relax ever so slightly, then you see [that] the associations that you bring from knowledge of American history just aren’t necessary.”
There is no reason to assume that U.S. slavery resembled European slavery in the 1500s, says Spicer. “The fact that at the beginning of this period most of the slaves were white does go a long way,” she said.
But even if slavery during this time period is more complicated than one might guess, being a slave wasn’t comfortable by any means. One black man carrying a water jug on his head in the 16th-century painting wears chains, which were typically attached to a slave who tried to run away.
Others devised different strategies. As the exhibit catalog recounts, the forcibly converted former Jew Hector Nunes, who lived in London, went to court seeking to force a “slave” he had purchased from an English sailor to work. Evidently, the man’s refusal to serve his “master” held water, as the court told Nunes the only thing he could do was to sue for his money back. That might not have been what Maimonides had in mind, but it does help underscore one of the main points of the exhibit, which is that the stories of individual African men and women — rather than explorations of slave “types” — are well worth studying and reflecting upon.
Menachem Wecker writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.