On February 4, 2019, Germantown Academy unveiled a special art installation in the Commons Art Space entitled We were there. And we are here. by Gabrielle Russomagno 1760. The original installation can be found in Head of School Rich Schellhas' office.
We were there. And we are here. is a site-specific installation that sits opposite a painted portrait of George Washington in the Head of School office. It is the culmination of months of research and prototyping informed by Erica Armstrong Dunbar's Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. (Professor Dunbar visited GA on Feb. 5). From the very beginning of this project, it was important that the aesthetic form of this artwork appear both historic and contemporary at once. I wanted the experience of standing between the two artworks to tell a story across time – I wanted them to be in conversation with each other. Face to face as these artworks are displayed, I imagine them as two points on a long and complicated continuum of history, one in which the past confronts the present and the present insists upon its place in history.
My search to find images and likenesses of Washington's slaves, including Ona Judge, proved fruitless. Indeed, there were scant few likenesses to be found of any kind. In the late 1700s and early 1800s people of power and privilege alone had the means to have their likeness rendered. At that same time, portraits of the masses were made from cut paper in the form of a profile silhouette. There is a quiet directness to historical silhouettes that I have always loved and felt that the form could lend meaning both specific and metaphoric to the artwork and serve the broader intentions of the piece. Without any historical visual material to draw from, I set out to digitally construct silhouette likenesses using contemporary photographs and scans of vintage paper. Each letter and number of the names and dates assigned to the portraits were sampled from historic ledgers that detailed the purchase and sale of humans. Once digitally constructed, the prints were soaked in beeswax rendering the surface of the paper skin-like and translucent. Before framing each of the nine prints in a modern black shadow box frame, they were mounted with steel tacks resembling the ones used to hang runaway slave notices in town centers.
Before contemplating this artwork, I sketched several ideas related to images and words from the book. I was particularly drawn to images and words from the book. I was particularly drawn to the notices of Ona's capture and return to the Washington's. Hoping to make a quilt-like replica of some of them, I made rubbings of engraved letters on cemetery headstones that I would use for a text assemblage of the notices themselves. As interesting as these draft ideas were, in the end, I was more compelled by the conceit of the silhouette and an installation of nine males and females of various ages—a family as it were—as a way of putting names and faces to those who suffered abject exploitation of slavery to serve as a reminder of the bias of history.
Head of School Rich Schellhas' Statement:
George Washington's relationship to Germantown Academy has informed our school's story for over two centuries. We are proud that he entrusted our teachers with the education of his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, and we are honored that Washington even gifted GA with some prized artifacts which we continue to treasure.
In light of recent studies regarding the Washington family and their relationship to slavery, it feels important to me that we, as a learning community, strive to educate ourselves and our students about the Washington family and the greater context of their time, and to learn more specifically about the enslaved people in their home while their son attended our school.
Inspired by Erica Armstrong Dunbar's Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, I commissioned Gabrielle Russomagno 1760 to create a piece of art that reflects the broader Washington legacy both in our country and our school to ensure that we tell as much of that story as we know. For many years, a beautiful portrait of first president has adorned the walls of the Germantown Academy Head of School's office. The idea behind this new commission is to create a second beautiful piece of art to engage in a visual dialogue with that original Washington portrait. We were there. And we are here. Reminds us that our history as a country is multi-layered complex, and not always represented by what you first see, hear, or read.