In the United States (where it also known as African-American History Month) and Canada, February marks Black History month, an annual remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African Diaspora (also observed in the UK and Ireland, but in the month of October). Given this, it is fitting that February should also see The Eye Arts host the latest 3D installation by London Junkers and which celebrates the life and work of a great American heroine – Harriet Tubman.
Entitled Hero, this is another installation by Junkers that is both marvellously understated in form but powerful in its content and depth. Rather than offering multiple scenes depicting Tubman’s life and work, London instead presents two gallery spaces that simply and directly encapsulate the major factors of her early life and work as an abolitionist, supported by the words of a poem also penned by Junkers.
Born into slavery in 1822 (as Armanda Ross) in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman was routed exposed to violent beatings and whippings as a child, and received traumatic head wound when a heavy metal weight thrown by an irate overseer struck her, leaving her with bouts of dizziness, pain in the form of headaches and hypersomnia throughout the rest of her life. As a result of this injury and the visions it gave her, Harriet became devoutly religious – and determined to escape her bonds.
In 1849, Tubman finally realised her goal to escape slavery, thanks to several factors combining – her belief in the Old Testament’s tales of deliverance for enslaved people; the discovery that her current owners were ignoring a stipulation the her mother would be manumitted (freed by her owners) at the age of 45; and thirdly that the widow of her owner might actually break up her family be selling them off.
However, a first attempt, made with her brothers Ben and Henry, ended when her siblings opted to return. A few months later Harriet tried again, this time making use of the so-called Underground Railroad – a network of former slaves, those still enslaved, abolitionists, and other activists – to reach the relative safety of Philadelphia. But she did not rest on her laurels.
I was a stranger in a strange land. My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.
– Harriet Tubman
And so, spurred both by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which imposed heavy punishment on those aiding escaped slaves, together with the news that members of her family were to be sold off, Tubman started working to bring her family and other escaping slaves out of Maryland and, thanks to the threat of the Fugitive Slave Law making it harder to find places where escapees could be kept safe, she would lead them as far north as British Ontario (Canada), the British Empire having abolished slavery altogether. Over the course of 11 years and 13 expeditions, Tubman directly guided 70 slaves to freedom, and assisted an estimated 50-60 more in their efforts to find freedom.
All of this is captured with Junker’s words and installation. In the first hall, the poem is set upon a pedestal alongside a fire roaring in a hearth – the latter suggestive of the warmth and comfort of a place to live free from the rigours and terror of slavery. Click the poem to get a HUD version for ease of reading, if required, for the words are beautifully crafted, telling Harriet’s tale in freeing herself and then seeking to free the rest of her family and others. Within in it we find not only a reflection of her life and work as a practical abolitionist, but also personal touches that bring her to life, such as the name Minty awarded her by her family or that of Moses, the name given her by those she freed because like him, she led her people from bondage.
Either side of this poem and its warm, safe fireplace sit railway tracks and little wagons, personifying the idea of the Underground Railroad and to the idea of slave labour (the wagons resembling those used to haul coal, rock or other fruits of manual labour). Both of these tracks angle towards a stone arch that leads visitors into woodland clearing at night.
Here a single track of rail line points to the towering figure of Tubman as show towers like an angelic protector over a pregnant woman and two young children – one of whom carries the yoke and chains of slavery -, figures that represent all those she guided to safety from captivity. Around them, the Moonlit woods stand as a reminder of the covert nature of journeys Tubman took with her wards, travelling by night and hiding by day. Within the setting we also witness the dangers that hunted them by day and night: the baying hounds that tracked them, leading torch-bearing, angry men promising the threat of recapture or even death from a bullet or at the end of a rope for having the temerity to attempt to seek a life of freedom.
Harriet Tubman’s life and work was remarkable; not only did she do much to free those enslaved directly by physical efforts, she also worked alongside abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and John Brown and working in support of the Union cause in the US Civil War (where she was directly involved in an action that resulted in the freeing on 750 slaves), and then in later life worked to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. Within Hero London offers a just honouring of Tubman and her endeavours and a fitting exhibit for Black History Month – do be sure to pay it a visit.
- Hero, The Eye Gallery (Gigli Waves, rated Moderate)