SLAVICULT working group examines the relationships between slavery and visuality

November 19, 2019

  • Dancers from Afro-Colombian dance group Permanencias perform a reaction to seventeenth-century descriptions of the experience of slavery at the Santuario del Convento de San Pedro Claver in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of the 2019 colloquium. Photo credit: Maruja Parra

    Less than four years ago, a group of three University of Chicago faculty members met to discuss their research interests around slavery and visual culture. That team has since morphed into a dynamic working group that collaborates across two institutions and engages with scholars around the world.

    UChicago’s Working Group on Slavery and Visual Culture (SLAVICULT) is an interdisciplinary forum of faculty and graduate students who are focused on research related to images of slavery and the slave trade, along with the creation and use of images and objects by enslaved peoples and slaveholders. Formed in 2016, SLAVICULT is housed under the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. The group is currently led by UChicago faculty members Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Larissa Brewer-García, and Danielle Roper from Romance Languages and Literatures; Christopher Taylor (English Language and Literature); and Allyson Nadia Field (Cinema and Media Studies). SLAVICULT is a collaborative project with Yale University, where work is organized by founding member Cécile Fromont.

    “When we began this project, we thought it would end up being a few of us getting together, but now the group has grown so much, especially because of the new scholars on campus who have greatly enhanced our work,” Lugo-Ortiz said. “There are 10 of us who meet regularly, but our events draw many more people from across the University and around the world.”

    SLAVICULT facilitates a wide array of events that are open to all members of the campus community, including quarterly reading sessions, faculty workshops, and external speaker seminars. On November 22, a workshop will be held featuring Kaneesha Parsard, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature, who will discuss the topic, Is the "Coolie Group’"a Bargaining Unit? Coming up on December 5, the group will welcome Miguel Valerio, Assistant Professor of Spanish at Washington University in Saint Louis, who will lead a seminar on the topic Visualizing Afro-Creole Performance and Dance in Colonial Latin America

    “The things I learn in the working group very much affect my teaching,” Brewer-García said. “We intentionally have multiformat events which gives us an opportunity to learn new things. We also strike a balance between starting conversations and actively participating in broader ones by way of our external collaborations.”  

    SLAVICULT has also hosted two international colloquia, one at the UChicago Paris Center in March 2018 and most recently the Slavery, Visuality, and Memory: Reactivation Practices conference in Cartagena, Colombia in June 2019. These conferences featured presentations on work related to the working groups’ interests in the Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Atlantic world. In July 2020, the third colloquia will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, centered on Afro-Latin American Art and its relationships to the history of slavery. Like the previous colloquia, the Puerto Rico event will feature a number of closed academic sessions in addition to several events that are open to the public. In the past, public colloquia events have drawn up to 150 people. The conferences also give scholars a unique opportunity to engage with research materials on location in conversation with local scholars.

    “Our colloquia have various functions which include collaborating with scholars, but also being in these different places, seeing different objects, and visiting the sites associated with the history of slavery that usually do not travel,” Lugo-Ortiz said.

    Members of SLAVICULT have also published their work in numerous academic journals and presented at a number of recent conferences, including Empire and its Aftermath at the University of Pittsburgh. The group plans to eventually publish its own edited collection of essays.

    For the latest news and events about this group, visit the SLAVICULT website.