STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
At first glance, “Cash Crop” appears to be an uncomfortable reminder of the barbarism of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
A recurring image throughout the exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia is from a 1788 abolitionist print diagram of an English slave ship that depicts human beings packed together even tighter than common livestock. No wonder more than 600 kidnapped Africans died aboard just that one ship in a span of 25 years, according to the exhibit.
The centerpiece of “Cash Crop” is 15 life-size, shackled and immobilized, cement human sculptures of men, women and children — representing the estimated 15 million people captured, traded for goods and forced into slavery between 1540 and 1850 — all chained to a wooden pallet with the United States seal carved into it.
But as you take a more focused look at the multi-media installation by Durham, N.C. artist Stephen Hayes, you realize this is actually a wider-reaching, empathetic commentary on, in his words, “silent sufferings of the economically exploited” — specifically modern-day sweatshops all over the world.
The wood sculpture “Made In” suggests a slave ship. However, printed on the sails in square-inch boxes are: “Made in China,” “Made in Dominican Republic,” “Made in India,” etc.
“There’s a lot of layers to his work,” commented Patricia Wilson Aden, president and CEO of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Hayes’ work challenges you to take personal stock of your own consumerism and materialism and ponder who or what will be the next cash crop.
“It is very relatable,” Aden added, noting that groups of school children that have visited the exhibit grasp what Hayes is trying to say after looking at the tags of the shirts they’re wearing.
In an interview, the 31-year-old sculptor said it took a solid month of working non-stop to create a towering arrangement of shoebox-size wooden boxes, each containing a small iron cast of the Brooks slave ship image — which looks hauntingly like the sole of a shoe in this context.
“I treated my bedroom as my own personal sweatshop. I’ve always worked as a machine; I’ll stay up day and night,” he said.
“It has sparked conversations. We want to hear from our audience. Some of our audiences have some very visceral responses,” said Aden, mentioning the talkback chalkboards throughout the exhibit.
One recent visitor wrote: “Is it all behind us?”
“Hopefully,” another wrote in response.
“Not in Ferguson,” replied another.
Supplementing “Cash Crop” are a few grim artifacts from the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery, also in Philadelphia. The Delaware County Bar Association has lent a slave docket from a part of the county that was in Chester County back when the docket was kept. There’s also a video loop of a performance by the Moore Dance Project of modern dance vignettes inspired by 1930s interviews of former slaves.
Hayes said his next works will take the theme of “Cash Crop” to a logical next step — linking brainwashing with commodities and goods. You can follow him at www.stephenhayescreations.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
IF YOU GO
What: Stephen Hayes’ “Cash Crop.”
When: Through Jan. 5.
Where: The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., Philadelphia.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Admission: $14, $10 for students, children 4-12 and seniors.
Info.: Call (215) 574-0380 or visit www.aampmuseum.org.