New ways of survival

Anna Martine Whitehead’s solo exhibition, “Notes on Territory: Meditation,” at Roman Susan, is an invitation to imagine new ways of survival. The bulk of the gallery is taken up by a seven-by-nine-foot wooden platform strewn with books and throw blankets; a woven canopy hangs above it, forming a compact sanctuary of sorts. The sculpture has the same dimensions as the crawl space that Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman on the run from her captor, lived in for seven years. To put your body in proportion to the space, to crawl inside of it—as visitors are encouraged to do—is heavy, but that’s not the takeaway that Whitehead envisions. Instead, they think there is something liberatory to be gained from putting one’s body in this space.

“This is in no way what her space looked like,” Whitehead says. “This is not a re-creation of suffering. I’m very opposed to rehearsing suffering.”

The back of the sculpture is enclosed by a shiny metallic sheet, silver on one side, gold on the other. The base—made of wood sourced from the trees around Lathrop Homes, many of which were felled for the redevelopment—holds a loose library of books relating to abolition, liberation, and radical thought, from Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

Whitehead first learned about Jacobs’s story about seven years ago, eventually reading her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the few extant first-person narratives told from the perspective of an enslaved woman. The book details Jacobs’s childhood, her decision to flee a sexually aggressive captor, the years she spent in hiding, and then her eventual journey north to freedom. The crawl space Jacobs lived in was roughly the size of a contemporary prison cell (other than in height—Jacobs’s space was three feet tall at its highest point), a poignant coincidence for Whitehead, whose work often references the prison industrial complex.

The project was first staged in 2019 at the Chicago art space SITE/less. The iteration at Roman Susan includes a calming ambient noise component, made in collaboration with Sofía Córdova, that encourages quiet contemplation. On the walls behind the platform are a series of spare paper collages. They depict metamorphic creatures, part human, part animal, with redacted text from Assata Shakur’s autobiography or James Carr’s Bad. The outline of the figures echoes the floor plan of Cape Coast Castle, a historic site in present-day Ghana where Africans were held in dungeons before being put on ships and sold off to slavery.

“These collages feel like either armor or building a transformer,” Whitehead says. “I think that’s what I’m thinking about these as: hybrid beast forms.”

While the collages may seem disparate from Jacobs’s crawl space, both reference a type of architecture of containment. “I guess my question was: how do people survive in these places?” she says. “I was trying to draw this connection between survival through the slave castles, onto the slave ship, onto the plantation, and then survival all the way to now, through prison. How do you survive that? And I felt like her work gives us some tools for thinking, for understanding ways to survive in relationship to architecture that is meant to not support human survival.” 

For Whitehead, there is also a woman-centric element to this work—“that women make spaces into homes that aren’t really meant for them and their families to live in.” Indeed, Jacobs’s crawl space was located in the house of her grandmother, who provided a bed for her to sleep in, and covertly brought extra blankets during the winter months. 

Whitehead will be present at the gallery on Thursday afternoons throughout the duration of the show, encouraging visitors to spend time inside the piece. And on November 10, artist and dancemaker Jay Carlon will be activating the installation at 5 PM.

“I think there’s something to learn from being with your body inside the space, but I don’t know what exactly it is,” Whitehead says. Jacobs referred to her secret hideaway as her “loophole of retreat,” a sort of liminal space that provided a nominal sort of freedom. Reading her autobiography, which is available for perusal at Roman Susan, one is struck by Jacobs’s formidable psychological capacity, her refusal to be broken down by the system of slavery. Living for so long in a space that didn’t allow for standing, or even comfortably sitting up, that had no proper window to the outside world, seems like an unimaginable hardship, but it was one that Jacobs chose. Her later life was no less remarkable, not only writing her book, which she hoped would convince readers of the true degradations of slavery, but also doing relief work and even founding a free school for formerly enslaved people. Whitehead considers the components of the exhibition to be an offering of sorts, for visitors to do what they want with, to forge their own connections.

Their hope is that the piece will take on a more permanent form outdoors, maybe in a public park. An area near Lathrop Homes would be a fitting site. She really wants people to climb into and interact bodily with the piece, and bringing it outside the gallery walls will only expand its reach, its possibilities.

“Notes on Territory: Meditation” Through 11/20: by appointment Wed-Thu 1-6 PM, Sun 3-6 PM, Roman Susan, 1224 W. Loyola, text 773-270-1224 or email [email protected],  

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