By Susan Dunne, Hartford Courant
February is Black History Month, and nothing looms larger in black history than the evil specter of slavery. Three exhibits in the state take on this subject. Two were inspired by a notorious slave-trading center on the shores of Africa. The third pays tribute to the legendary escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass.
An exhibit at William Benton Museum of Art at UConn in Storrs by artist Imna Arroyo was inspired by the same historic site that inspired Hudson’s Hartford exhibit: the “House of Slaves,” the home of the “Door of No Return.” Arroyo, a retired art professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, visited the place and had a revelation.
“The guide said ‘This is the door of no return.’ Suddenly a voice from the deep part of my soul told me to say ‘No, I’ve returned’,” Arroyo says. “It was an amazing experience. Time is a continuum. It continues in cycles, a spiral, something like that. I came from a place and I return to a place. And there I was.”
For “Ancestors of the Passage” Arroyo sculpted 27 busts of men and women with staring eyes and grave expressions. She installed them on the floor, amid strips of blue, white and green silk, signifying the sea. Each holds up palms toward the sky. The figures represent the many who died during the voyage. (Slave traders expected many to die; they considered a voyage profitable if half the captives survived the trip.)
The stories of the perished ones are horrifying and the artwork is haunting. However, Arroyo wants her message to be uplifting.
”The ancestors are coming from the dead up into the water, extending their hands to us to remind us of our gift,” she says. “We are very gifted people. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that, to not get bogged down in the reality we live in, to remember our rich spiritual tradition. We have many gifts in this life. We need to focus on the gifts.”