Tuesday, July 31, 2012
White plantation owners on the Georgia Sea Islands, in the years following the Revolutionary War, made the coastal area an important producer of rice and of sugarcane. Planters like Sapelo Island’s Thomas Spalding (1774–1851) oversaw the creation of sugarcane plantations and the construction of tabby mills to process the crop into sugar. In order to accomplish these agricultural and economic goals, Spalding and other planters imported hundreds of enslaved Africans—mainly from Angola, Sierra Leone, and Gambia—to work the rice fields and sugar plantations of the coast. In this mural, Beattie leaves slavery simply implied, as the viewer sees no masters, no overseers, and no shackles. The enslaved African Americans, idealized as powerful, active figures, harvest sugarcane. For the monumental central figure of the mural, Beattie directly cites the Renaissance artist Michelangelo and a figure— the so-called Rebellious Slave (ca. 1515, marble, now in The Louvre) struggling to free himself—originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Like Michelangelo’s “slave” figure, Beattie’s muscular male exhibits strength in his twisting labor and references the physical power of ancient Greek and Roman gods and heroes. Beattie juxtaposes the figures and the working mule at the right of the painting to represent the chattel nature of slavery, but he ignores the horrors and indignities inflicted on enslaved persons as he celebrates the dignity of labor and the agency of enslaved individuals.