The Influence of Slavery, Through Contemporary Art

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For the average museumgoer, the wrought-iron balustrade from Federal Hall, where George Washington took the oath of office in 1789, may simply be an ornate piece of Americana. But for the conceptual artist Fred Wilson, it was the starting point for a long riff on battles against oppression around the world.

Gesturing toward the swirls and arrows in the ironwork last week at the New-York Historical Society, Mr. Wilson said the name of the balustrade's creator, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, got him thinking about the link between the French and American Revolutions, American slavery, and the revolt of Haitian slaves against France. He wandered the historical society's halls, seeking concrete expressions of his ideas: busts of Washington and Napoleon, slave tags, slave shackles, a wooden African-American figurine, a portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture.

"American history is related to all these different subjects, all these different places," Mr. Wilson said. But "in America — at least how I was raised — it all gets whittled down to an American situation."

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