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“Slave rebellions were a continuous source of fear in the American South, especially since black slaves accounted for more than one-third of the region’s population in the 18th century.” So begins the most current article on slave rebellions on the History network website. The writers can imagine a fear of rebellion but not the hopes embodied therein; they traffic in an actuarial metaphor, “accounting,” that subtly affirms that “black slaves” were indeed commodities; and they proffer a unit, “the American South,” that includes the slavers and their enablers but not the enslaved, whose resistance to slavery is just as Southern as slavery, perhaps more so.
At this white-out of Blackness, history, and rebellion, artist Dread Scott aims his Slave Rebellion Reenactment. With the support of New Orleans–based Antenna Works and funding from many nonprofits and individuals, Scott—whose chosen name promises other futures to his famously wronged namesake, Dred Scott—reenacted the 1811 German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in US history. And for the panoply of images of enslaved bodies that already circulate—images of jolly docility, of dignified forbearance, of obliterative degradation, of headlong flight—Scott substitutes images of rebellious Black bodies: an armed, disciplined, conspiratorial army of now palpable ancestors who bequeath armed struggle and a vision even more radical than that of America’s enslaver founders.
For two days Scott and approximately five hundred performers, some on horseback, all carrying weapons, all dressed in handmade period costumes, reenacted the uprising, beginning on November 8, 2019, where the uprising began, in LaPlace, Louisiana, thirty miles west of New Orleans, and concluding the following day in the French Quarter. The 1811 uprising was brutally suppressed: the rebels were defeated, and although most fled, many were captured and dismembered, their heads set on pikes. Prizing speculative history over fidelity, the 2019 reenactment omitted this slaughter, marching through industrial sprawl and petrochemically sodden spaces, through so-called Cancer Alley, and into New Orleans, where Scott’s army occupied the streets of the Quarter, chanting “No more chains! Freedom!”
I attended both days of the reenactment—moving with the crowds, sometimes running alongside the procession, making images—along with the many journalists, affiliated friends and family members, and film crews, including Scott’s crew, helmed by acclaimed filmmaker John Akomfrah. Akomfrah’s technical apparatus enveloped the reenactment: several electric tracking vehicles with gyroscopically stabilized jib arms bearing 6k cameras led the procession, framing the approach of Scott and other leaders in the front lines. A drone with yet another camera flew above, a pestering fly and buzzing angel. Not only did Akomfrah’s crew have access to the entirety of the reenactment, the latter forthrightly addressed them. A few nonpublic events along the way, such as the reenactment of the attack on the slaver Manuel Andry, were only open to registered media outlets, most of whom could witness from a distance while the official crew documented. On the other hand, the reenactment of the battle that ended the 1811 uprising but only punctuated the 2019 edition was public; it was attended by a few hundred people, all of whom were required to watch from a berm overlooking the vast Bonnet Carré Spillway, while the official crew took up positions on either side of the skirmish, Akomfrah directing via two-way radio.
Thus did eighteenth-century garb and gear mix with twenty-first-century staging and media equipment in the hands of artists, journalists, witnesses, and some of the reenactors themselves, who selfied and Insta-ed their compatriots. Most of those reporting on the reenactment struggled to make images that framed out other photographers or excluded signs of contemporaneity; during breaks the pros and amateurs pulled individual reenactors away from the mass to make portraits against “neutral” backgrounds of foliage and fields. Those who sought to buoy the fiction of the “historical” by isolating the reenactors from the tech, from levees and industry and street signs and roadside restaurants, missed some of Scott’s point: he and his reenactors are the time travelers, not us. But we aren’t so much witnesses to their jarring arrival as they are a challenge to our endless brutalities: to the land, to each other, to Black and Indigenous peoples, to their frozen images.
Attuned to the reenactors and their movements, the technical envelope was both integral to the reenactment and a means to its capture, transmission, and archiving. Thus, the reenactment wasn’t only to be documented from without, nor was it a profilmic event whose reality dissolved as it became cinema—though it was documented, and indeed a multichannel media installation is coming. Rather, Scott and his collaborators, in seeking to leave a trace, model just action, and intervene in the media ecologies of slavery, inflated this envelope. They employed reenactment and cinematic techniques together as a hybrid artistic medium, leveraging its force and contributing to its art history.
Reenactment is comfort food for war lovers, history buffs, courtroom dramatists—and serious fare for filmmakers, from Robert Flaherty to Peter Watkins, Joshua Oppenheimer, Patricio Guzmán, Elisabeth Subrin, and Jill Godmilow. It is also a venerable artistic medium. In her Untitled (Rape Scene) of 1973, Ana Mendieta reenacts the rape and murder of Sarah Ann Ottens; or rather, Mendieta’s tableaux mourant reenacts the scene left by Otten’s rapist/murderer, fusing performance with forensic documentation. The 1975 work The Eternal Frame by Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco follows the troupe’s unseemly, vaudeville-meets-cosplay reenactment of the Kennedy assassination. The titular “eternal frame” characterizes the uncanny durability of the infamous Zapruder film: a frame, a “flame”—pun intended—and a grave. Contemporary artist reenactments include the 2001 film The Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller; Mark Tribe’s 2008 filmed reenactments of protest speeches from the 1960s New Left movements, The Port Huron Project; and Marisa Williamson’s ongoing projects under the aegis of the Hemmings Foundation, a living monument to Sally Hemmings, whom Williamson inhabits in numerous contexts, from Monticello to Paris.
Like these artists, Scott treats a precedent, the German Coast Uprising, as a script to follow but also revise. Like them he seeks to mine said precedents for new resources, to unsettle scores, to fracture the presumed coherence of the present. His army frames and is framed by bloated refineries and engineering feats, which are both thin, toxic veneers and deep reservoirs of pain and stolen labor: “Slave cemeteries remain unmarked, underwater in the [Bonne Carré] Spillway” reads a recent headline. Scott brings the past into the present but also reveals the past in the present; on the basis of the latter, he seeks to reckon new hopes with new images. And like these artists, Scott isn’t so interested in fidelity, preservation, or jewel-box reverence. Mendieta saw blood and violation everywhere—and wanted everyone else to see it too. Ant Farm and company mock the sentimentality of a culture that consumes even murder as a looping stereotype. Scott sees enslavement and repression everywhere and yet also sees rebellion. He renovates the stereotypes of enslavement and resistance and even historical reenactment, mimicking and displacing Civil War reenactors who traditionally reify “sacrifice” and “bravery” and bracket the truest, messiest stuff.
For whom then is Scott’s reenactment? The knowing witnesses, the ones who came to hold and support the work, to observe, document, hashtag? The accidental witnesses, the ones in the neighborhoods of LaPlace and other locales en route, the ones who came out of their homes to watch or swerved from their tourism—struck by the mild shocks of WTF, “my own backyard,” and a martial spectacle out of place and in the wrong, by which I mean right, hands? The absent multitudes who will now have other weapons, other images, other histories to call upon—thanks to the knowing witnesses, Akomfrah included? The reenactors themselves, who inhabited the work and were inhabited by it, who prepared, rehearsed, made common cause with this artist, with their friends and elders—the aunt and uncle of Oscar Grant were among Scott’s army—with their enslaved ancestors, with all of their descendants, with the Mississippi, the levees, the Spillway?
All of the above. On the second day and during a break in the reenactment, I, a somewhat knowing witness and thus a vector for the work’s afterlife, observed a small circle of female reenactors begin to sing, dance, and chant. This circle was neither inside nor outside the framework of the reenactment: the reenactors were off and yet still on, still channeling 1811 but in and through their own time. Nothing was happening but the everything of their pained joy; their weapons were both percussive musical instruments and banners, the women raising them high as they also raised their voices. Journalists, photographers, and onlookers pressed close, not singing, not chanting, but nonetheless dancing, their instruments tuned to those of the circle: lifted above the growing crowd were songs, farm tools, machetes, cameras, microphones, and cell phones, the weapons of all the centuries, transmitting and receiving, inviting ghosts and broadcasting devotions. Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment opened zones where the-freedom-that-could-have-been confronts the-slavery-that-remains, where performance becomes witnessing becomes insurgency, and where reenactment prepares a history to come.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Haverford College