[The extended image captions above and below are styled according to the artist’s insistence.]
Few young artists anywhere have garnered as much attention as quickly as Cameron Rowland. Not yet 35 years old, they won a $625,000 MacArthur “genius” fellowship and the inaugural $100,000 Nomura Emerging Award in 2019, and their work is now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. But Rowland’s subject matter is tough and knotty, and seemingly at odds with such stardom. Their focus is typically the way that everyday objects—pieces of furniture, elements of design—make visible different histories of systemic racism, and they are always more concerned with ideas than aesthetics.
Still, each time Rowland stages a new exhibition, it’s an event, and at last, their work touched down in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Rowland’s newest show, “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73,” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA) in January, and the museum has promised it will go back on view once the coronavirus lockdown ends. As with other Rowland efforts, it’s an intellectual endeavor. The ICA’s exhibition space mostly blank, and there’s no wall text or curatorial statement. In their place, visitors receive a 19-page pamphlet to navigate the gallery. If you have both the stamina and patience to read a heavily annotated essay, Rowland explains the show’s subject: the slave trade and its ongoing ramifications for society.
Scattered throughout are items that are virtually meaningless without Rowland’s essay. Twenty-three brass manillas manufactured in 18th-century Birmingham lie in a pile on the floor of the lower gallery among glass beads. The work is titled Pacotille (2020), its name a reference to the French word for “rubbish.” These copper and brass were manufactured as African trade goods in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Ireland, and they were essentially worthless, but were appropriated as currency. Enslaved Africans were valued at 12–15 manillas in the early 1500s by the Portuguese, and Europeans would offer manillas as payment, but never accepted them as credit themselves.
From there, Rowland goes on to connect the slave trade to the current moment—and to the ICA itself. Since 1968, the ICA has been based at 12 Carlton House Terrace, in a building owned by the Crown since 1760. The site was formally the home of King George IV, who refurbished the building, adding four mahogany doors and a wooden handrail that leads you to the current upper gallery. Currently sited there is a mortgage contract mounted over several frames. Mahogany used in 18th-century furniture was cut and milled by Caribbean wageless workers for the refinement and high-cultured tastes of wealthy Britons. Rowland claimed those mahogany elements and called them an artwork, titled Encumbrance (2020), which was mortgaged for £1,000 per piece by the ICA to Encumbrance Inc. just weeks before the exhibition opening. The loan will not be repaid for as long as the mahogany remains a part of the building.
With that piece, Rowland is drawing on one of the cardinal principles of Afro-pessimism, a line of thinking which partly grew out of work by Jamaican scholar Orlando Patterson, who wrote that Blackness cannot be separated from slavery. According to Patterson, instead of defining enslaved Africans as forced or cheap labor, they are more acutely regarded as property. The enslaved were objectified in such a way that they were legally made an object to be used and exchanged like property, far from human, taking from their very being. Hence why Rowland has literally envisioned the transatlantic slave trade in the form of ready-made objects, which, like the slaves themselves, are here guided by land and property contracts.
This is undoubtedly a topic worth pondering, but regrettably Rowland creates work that is virtually illegible to a general public that isn’t versed in Black studies and art history. (An events program that was to include lectures by theorists K-Sue Park, Derica Shields, and Saidiya Hartman would have done a lot to elucidate Rowland’s heady art, but it was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.) In America, where thorough and thoughtful exhibitions of Black art are becoming slightly more common, all this might have been well-received, but the U.K has only very recently begun to engage with Black artists, least of all Black subjectivity and the material legacies of their slave trade. That means that the ICA needs to do more to contextualize Rowland’s work for its local audience.
Rowland and the curators have overestimated the public’s desire and commitment to better understand the political landscape, because even a paying museum-goer might grow tired of work as conceptual and rigorous as Rowland’s and become disengaged. The white British public is unlikely to learn much from a document-filled text, and it is even less likely to apply that text to objects as spare as Rowland’s. But the confusion even extends to a Black British public. When it comes to Rowland’s work, both friends and acquaintances have often asked me what it all means. Black people are entitled to oscillating levels of opacity for their own safeguarding and to preservation resources like time and emotional labor. But who does Rowland intend for his work to be legible to, really, if not Black people themselves?