July 2023: Visual Regimes of Enslavement and Their Afterlives (The Puerto Rico Case)

Third International Colloquium and Seminar

Organized by the Working Group on Slavery and Visual Culture &
the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago


Agnes Lugo-Ortiz

Visual Regimes of Enslavement and Their Afterlives in the Caribbean (The Puerto Rican Case) is the third international colloquium sponsored by The University of Chicago’s Working Group on Slavery and Visual Culture [SLAVICULT], this time with the support of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society and in collaboration with numerous Puerto Rican cultural institutions. This event is conceived as corollary to the work SLAVICULT has conducted over the last two years (2021 to 2023) for the seminar Visual Regimes of Enslavement and Their Afterlives, and as prelude to future projects. Also sponsored by the Neubauer Collegium, the seminar gathered a significant number of researchers from across the Americas to investigate and discuss the various modes in which visual idioms fostered under slavery endure in post-abolitionist constructions of Blackness—as a site of policing, discipline, labor, desire, enjoyment, love, death, and/or pity—as well as the challenging responses to that optical legacy offered by contemporary artists across the Americas. The colloquium in Puerto Rico will enhance the materials, perspectives, and questions we developed throughout this endeavor by examining aspects of a visual archive seldom considered in current discussions on slavery and visual culture and whose particularities may either confirm or modify the terms of our analytical frameworks.

Along with Cuba and Brazil, Puerto Rico was among the last territories to abolish slavery in Latin America (in 1873—2023 is the 150th anniversary of the event). Yet, the economic development sustained by enslaved plantation labor on the island was of a different scale altogether, never reaching the magnitude of the colossal export economies of its counterparts. Nevertheless, the trade in enslaved Africans, albeit illegal, continued in Puerto Rico well into the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving no aspect of the culture untouched by the richness of African practices. The colloquium will explore some of those legacies of subjection and survival and their rearticulations in the visual realm.

The colloquium is structured around three main nuclei:

  • The visualization of slavery and race in urban structures and artistic production. Where are the traces of enslavement and racialization in the cityscapes we walk? How are these made invisible or manifest, if at all? How has slavery been historically visualized in Puerto Rican art (by figures such as José Campeche and Francisco Oller), and how have contemporary Afro-Puerto Rican artists dealt with that pictorial legacy? What place do the memory of slavery and the present realities of racial hierarchies occupy in cultural projects and institutions of fine art, such as museums?
  • Performance. While the jíbaro (i.e. the white Puerto Rican peasant) has become the symbol of national identity, Blackness has been no less nationalized on the island. For this purpose, the national imagination has found no greater source than the cultures of the Afro-descendant town of Loíza. Its fiestas, masks, music, and food have been deeply incorporated into Puerto Rican visual traditions and daily practices to the point of folklorization—the folklorization of Blackness. As part of the colloquium, we will attend the Fiestas de Loíza on the day dedicated to the Santiago de las Mujeres (Women’s Saint James) and discuss contemporary responses to this phenomenon in historical research, political activism, arts, and film.
  • The intersections between ecological museography and the memory of slavery and their visualizations. In addition to being a human catastrophe, the development of plantation societies in the Caribbean entailed destructive ecological transformations. Until recently, ecological museography on the island was mostly directed towards educating on the natural aspects of nineteenth-century coffee and sugar haciendas. Although this approach did not erase altogether the social aspects of those economic structures, the realities of enslaved labor, and their legacies for the communities where these ecological museums are located, were relegated to second place. Yet, in recent years this has started to change. The seminar participants will have the opportunity to discuss these shifts with members of the Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico and to learn about its project on Afrodescendenciaat Hacienda La Esperanza in Manatí, the largest Puerto Rican sugar mill during the nineteenth century, now a museum under the Fideicomiso’s purview.

As the above suggests, this year’s colloquium will examine the visual afterlives of slavery in Puerto Rico through myriad cultural and institutional manifestations, not only within the realm of the formal fine arts. It features private and public events in order to engage participants in specialized discussions with artists and scholars in intimate spaces, as well as with broader publics. Our hope is that the work we do this week will further enhance our historical and theoretical understanding of the multiple manifestations of the visual afterlives of slavery and of the relevance of the Puerto Rican case for these reflections.

Core Participants:

Paulina Alberto, Harvard University

Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

Nohora Arrieta Fernández, University of California, Los Angeles

María del Carmen Baerga Santini, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

Larissa Brewer-García, University of Chicago

Roberto Conduru, Southern Methodist University

Alejandro de la Fuente, Harvard University

Pedro Noel Doreste, Michigan State University

Irene Esteves Amador, Colegio Universitario del Turabo

Cristina Esteves-Wolff, University of Chicago

Allyson Nadia Field, University of Chicago

Isabela Fraga, Stanford University

Cécile Fromont, Yale University

Gabriela Lomba Guzmán, University of Chicago

Jorge Lefevre Tavárez, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Bayamón

Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, University of Chicago

Malena Rodríguez Castro, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

Danielle Roper, University of Chicago

Awilda Sterling-Duprey, Performance Artist

María Elba Torres Muñoz, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

Tamara Walker, Barnard College, Columbia University