FOR SIX YEARS, Dread Scott has been planning a slave rebellion. The artist wants to bring attention to a fight for freedom waged more than two centuries ago by hundreds of African, American, and Haitian-born people in the Mississippi River parishes outside New Orleans.

Scott is reimagining the German Coast Uprising of 1811. It was the largest uprising of enslaved people in U.S. history. Yet, outside the region, hardly anyone has ever heard of it. He is shedding light on the revolutionary action in the form of a collective performance.

What that looks like is an ambitious undertaking. Harnessing art, history, and the support of hundreds of volunteer re-enactors, mostly from Louisiana, Scott is staging a Slave Rebellion Reenactment today and tomorrow (Nov. 8-9).

 


The route along which the slave uprising occurred is now populated with gated communities, trailer parks, strip malls, and a corridor of industrial plants emitting cancer-causing chemicals. | Illustration to Dan Bejar, Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 

On foot and horseback, Scott and about 500 black people wearing period-specific costumes, made specifically for the project by sewing circles, are recreating the revolutionary march. The reenactment began this morning roughly retracing the route of the original rebellion, a 26-mile stretch along Louisiana’s River Road from St. John the Baptist Parish to St. Charles Parish. The performance concludes Saturday afternoon with a public celebration of freedom in New Orleans at Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park.

Scott is collaborating with Antenna, a multi-arts organization in New Orleans, to organize and present the two-day procession. The project has a $1 million budget funded by individual donors and contributions from numerous institutions including the Open Society Foundations, VIA Art Fund, Ford Foundation, Surdna Foundation, McColl Center for Art + Innovation, and A Blade of Grass. Internationally recognized British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah is documenting the performance.

THE HISTORIC REBELLION was Jan. 8–10, 1811, more than a year before Louisiana became a state. Led by Charles Deslondes, Gilbert, Quamana, Jeesamine, and Maria Rose, among others, the insurrection began at Woodland, a sugar plantation owned by Manuel Andry in LaPlace. Brave and determined freedom fighters, they were black and Creole, and spoke English and French. They fled, armed with tools and some weapons, marching down the east bank of the Mississippi. The goal was to conquer New Orleans. Along the way they burned plantations, were joined by hundreds more who also sought emancipation, and were pursued by bands of white militia who attacked and killed dozens in their ranks.

The reenactment of the rebellion is a natural outgrowth of Scott’s practice. In describing his work, the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, states succinctly that he “makes revolutionary art to propel history forward.” An early installation “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag” (1988) questioned outsized regard for the flag and its symbolism and provoked the ire of then-President George H.W. Bush. Scott’s take on an NRA recruitment poster reads “Join the Negro Rifle Association Today.”

Other works include “Burning the Constitution” (2011) and a 2014 performance called “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide.” In July 2016, in the wake of police killing unarmed black people, the artist flew a flag emblazoned with “A Man Was Lynched by Police Today” outside Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.

 


Historic marker for Andry Plantation where 1811 uprising began in LaPlace, La. | Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 


Artist Dread Scott (left), with fellow slave rebellion re-enactors. Costumes designed by Alison Parker. | Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 

In advance of the performance, Scott engaged for years with historians; artists and cultural producers; local civic leaders, organizations, schools and universities; and the community at large. He wanted to learn more about the uprising, shape his ideas about the project, and get buy-in and participation from the community.

A central reason for undertaking the reenactment was to explore how the historic uprising informs the present and consider how its revolutionary tenets connect to the issues of liberty and justice that continue to dominate the dialogue on human rights and racism in the United States today—matters such as mass incarceration, reparations, police murder, migration, and voter suppression.

“The basis for which people are participating and what this work is about is that they want to embody this profound history of freedom and emancipation where people were trying to overthrow a system of enslavement and replace it with a new society that did not have slavery at its foundations.”
— Dread Scott

“The basis for which people are participating and what this work is about is that they want to embody this profound history of freedom and emancipation where people were trying to overthrow a system of enslavement and replace it with a new society that did not have slavery at its foundations. It’s an actual historic event that obviously talks about the past and the present,” Scott said in a podcast interview with The Art Newspaper.

“We are walking set against the scene of modern day Louisiana. We will be walking through an area known as Cancer Alley. So imagine 500 armed black people with muskets and machetes and sickles and sabers and axes chanting “On to New Orleans, Freedom or Death, We’re going to end slavery, Join Us,” in 19th century clothing with African drumming and flags flying and not the American flag but flags that people might have used to unite themselves as they prepared for battle, people from Africa and of African descent. Imagine that set against oil refineries, or set against green elevators, or set against trailer parks, or set against mobile homes, or set against Dominos Pizza Huts, with modern cars. And so it’s that space that people can actually witness. This sort of clash of the past and the present is interesting. I think people will say what the heck am I looking at? And that’s a beautiful place to be in.”

He continued: “It does pose though that this was this rebellion where people were trying to overthrow and seize all Orleans territory which is modern day Louisiana and set up an African republic in the New World, which earlier you (the interviewer) said might have changed race relations in the U.S. It actually might have changed the U.S. and the world.” CT

 

FIND MORE about the Slave Rebellion Reenactment on the project website

FIND MORE about Dread Scott on his website

 

READ MORE about Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion in Vanity Fair and the New York Times

LISTEN to Dread Scott talk about the reenactment with The Art Newspaper

WATCH Dread Scott’s TED Talk about How Art Can Shape America’s Conversation About Freedom

 

BOOKSHELF
Dread Scott first learned about the 1811 uprising when he read “On to New Orleans!: Louisiana’s heroic 1811 slave revolt” by Albert Thrasher. The book inspired him to share what he learned and led to the reenactment project. Scott published “Fragments of the Peculiar Institution,” an artist book that reflects his slavery research. In conjunction with the reenactment, the artist also compiled a reading resource list and also shared key volumes that inspired the project.

 


Dread Scott explains the concept of the rebellion project and engages with volunteer enactors who talk about why they want to be a part of the artistic performance (2015). | Video by A Blade of Grass

 


Artist Dread Scott (right) with fellow slave rebellion re-enactor. Costumes designed by Alison Parker | Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 


Slave rebellion re-enactors during rehearsal. Costumes designed by Alison Parker. | Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 


Slave rebellion re-enactors. Costumes designed by Alison Parker. | Courtesy Slave Rebellion Reenactment

 

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