This winter, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., exhibited “Create to Free Yourselves: Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America,” an installation by Georges Adéagbo. In creating it, Adéagbo visited the Library’s Manuscript Division to research Abraham Lincoln’s words and handwriting. Stephan Köhler, Adéagbo’s collaborator and interpreter, accompanied him and translated his remarks here.
Since 1971, Adéagbo has been assembling found objects into award-winning private installations and environments. He studied law in Côte d’Ivoire, continued his studies in France and returned afterward to his native Benin.
How do you conceive of projects?
All my projects are site or theme specific. I do not work like a painter or sculptor, who finishes the production of his works in his studio and then sends them in crates to galleries or museums. All my installations are custom-made, and I realize them after months of preparing the components in the exhibition space, which becomes my studio so to speak. It is a dialogue of request and proposal.
When invited to a group show with a set theme, I start with its title and discuss my contribution with the curators. If it’s a solo show, I will decide on the title. I take my time to think about it, as it influences the perception of the audience.
How do you go about selecting objects?
For each project, I do a research visit to study the space and get the energy of a city or a house, as in this example of the President Lincoln’s Cottage. I see my work as archaeology of mentalities.
In many installations, I write: “Archaeology is the research and discovery of the mysteries and the energies that form a person, a city or an entire country.”
I collect over months both things and images in the city the exhibition takes place and bring them to Benin. There, I write texts about what I saw and glue them with the photos on a big sheet of brown packing paper. Then they are reproduced by sign painters and sculptors.
What drew you to Lincoln?
I first read about him in the late 1990s and was impressed by his determination to educate himself, become a lawyer, run for president and write the Emancipation Proclamation, which led to abolition of slavery.
When I was invited to have a solo show in New York City in 2000, I decided to dedicate it to Lincoln. It was called “Abraham, l’ami de Dieu.” I use references to the Bible as metaphors for justice and prudence, not because I am adherent of the Christian church. I think a lot about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. I think achievements and changes can be achieved only through a person making sacrifices.
In 2007, the Philadelphia Museum of Art invited me to reinstall the work in an extended version and bought the installation. At that time, my research was based only on books and the internet.
For the Installation “Create to Free Yourselves,” I received a Smithsonian Institution artists’ research fellowship and spent November 2021 in Washington, D.C.
What did your research involve?
My adviser was Nancy Bercaw, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She and her colleagues showed me items Lincoln used — his golden wrist watch, his black coat with worn-out edges — and life casts made of his face and hands. I also viewed the announcement of his death and many lithographs showing him with his family and satires of him by his opponents. I had these images realized by the artist Benoît Adanhoumè, and they appeared on the paintings and banners in the exhibition.
I also viewed images of Lincoln on horseback, commuting everyday between the White House and the cottage. I was impressed by him refusing to have bodyguards. So, I had a sculpture of Lincoln on horseback carved in Benin by Hugues Hountondji, who often works for me.
On the walls of Lincoln’s cottage, I saw quotes in Lincoln’s writing and thought they were very inspiring — reproductions of letters and the Emancipation Proclamation. Original handwriting transmits the energy and spirit of the person writing.
So, Stephan Köhler and I asked Nancy Bercaw if she could get us in touch with the curators at the Library of Congress. That’s how we met Michelle Krowl, a Manuscript Division historian, who generously showed us manuscripts by Lincoln from the Library’s collections.
I write a dozen pages myself every day, and I almost felt my hand moving in front of Lincoln’s writing as I gazed. We took photos of Lincoln’s famous April 4, 1864, letter to newspaper editor Albert G. Hodges, in which Lincoln recounts words he uttered in an earlier conversation: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” That seems to me the essence of Lincoln’s attitude.
How did you incorporate Lincoln’s writing?
I made a collage with the photo of the manuscript and my hand holding Lincoln’s golden pocket watch and gave it to Adanhoumè, who made a wonderful painting from it.
I integrated it in the installation in the Lincolns’ cottage bedroom, where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. The process and motivation for abolition was complex, I know, and others were involved, including Frederick Douglass, for example. Yet, Lincoln made this important first step, which opened doors for others.
What’s next for the installation?
It will soon be reinstalled in a modified version at Chesterwood, the former summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He is the artist who created the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. [French’s papers are at the Library.] The opening will be July 29. Then, toward the end of this year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art will host the installation.
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