Antebellum Appropriations

 “Lili Bernard paints elegant, sumptuous scenes of the uttermost cruelty in relating slave stories, Orishas and epic tales of bloodlust, revenge, and finally, redemption. Most importantly, redemption” – MAT GLEASON, Coagula Art Journal, May 2016

In a series of large oil paintings on canvas, which I call Antebellum Appropriations, I alter iconic classical European paintings and turn them into slave narratives. These paintings are a way for me to therapeutically express the sexual trauma and accompanying enslavement I personally endured as a young adult, by disguising myself in the stories of my ancestors.  Richly codified with imagery of Afro-Caribbean folklore and religious iconography, the paintings are centered on the generational exploitation of Black women, relating to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The work reaches beyond an aesthetic exploration of trauma as it pertains to racism and feminism. It critically examines a void that exists within the halls of art history: the failure to archive the important role which the abominable institution of slavery and rape played, across the African Diaspora, in sustaining the lifestyle of the figures who grace the ubiquitous, classical European canvases. By “flipping the script,” I shine the light of historical recognition upon these unsung enslaved heroines and heroes, whose lives of horror and resistance were overshadowed by serene scenes painted of their subjugators.

Caroline (after Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863), Oil on Canvas, 96”x63” © 2012 by Lili Bernard

Lili Bernard.  Caroline (after Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863), 2012.  Oil on Canvas, 63”x96”

Manet’s Olympia (1863), a nude White prostitute being served flowers by a fully-clothed Black maidservant in France, becomes Caroline, a naked Black maidservant, about to be raped (or just having been raped) by a partially-clad White master in 1800’s Jamaica. She is flanked by Orishas (Yoruba deities) who masquerade as animals with whom these protective spirits are associated.  This painting is inspired by my family’s personal history.  My great-grandmother, Caroline Dyce, was poor and black. She was a maidservant, in Jamaica, for my great-grandfather, William Bernard, who was rich and White. William was a stage coach designer, and was married with children. Caroline bore three babies from William: my grandmother Harriet and her brothers William and Nathan Bernard. We assume that the three mulatto children were born out of rape. This painting commemorates the conception of my beloved grandmother, Harriet Bernard, in 1886, Kingston, Jamaica.

“The starkest details in this disconcerting painting are the steel muzzles that surround the heads of the artist’s great-grandmother and her great-grandfather’s white wife. Called “scold’s bridles,” they were cruel and humiliating punishment devices used on women. In this case, the bridle on the black woman ensured her silence in the face of rape and on the white wife to ensure her silence — or denial — about her husband’s sexual privilege as a white male slave owner. The wife also attempts to shield her child from this unsavory reality. The man’s smugness and arrogance as he dresses following the sexual assault reveals, in microcosm, the deeper malevolence of slavery generally. Viewers also experience such other despicable elements of slavery’s oppression as leg irons and other torture devices. Overall, Caroline is a devastating and effective visual critique.” — PAUL VON BLUM, Tikkun Magazine, April 2013

Other paintings in the series visually archive pivotal historical events which are typically omitted from history books.  Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, a rendition of a fictitious White woman rebellion leader during the French Revolution of 1830, becomes Carlota Leading the People, a commemoration of the real-life Black woman freedom fighter who was the mastermind of the Cuban Slave Revolt of 1843.

“Another masterpiece by Lili Bernard.”  MAT GLEASON, Art Critic, December 2011, Facebook

Carlota of Cuba, painting by Lili Bernard

Lili Bernard.  Carlota Leading the People (after Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830), 2011.  Oil on Canvas, 60″x72″

Carlota, a machete-wielding enslaved Yoruba woman, lead the rebellion in Matanzas, Cuba, along with her cohorts, Fermina and Evaristo. Upon her capture, Carlota was dragged and quartered to death.  The painting dramatically memorializes this Cuban slave revolt while infusing spiritual imagery that reflects the Criolization of African religion across the Diaspora.  It does so with folkloric and biblical references, through the depiction of supporting subjects as Orishas operating in syncretism with their affiliated Catholic saints.

“Bernard’s other works in her series adapt iconic works from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People to complement her powerful artistic response to historical injustice.”PAUL VON BLUM, Tikkun Magazine, April 2013 

Another work in the series appropriates Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holorfernes (1612), which is considered to be one of the first European feminist paintings and a protest of the artist’s own raping.  Gentileschi’s painting becomes Carlota Slaying the Slaver which imagines the plot that Carlota carefully executes in which she kills her slaver.  In my imagined rendition of this real-life female-led slave revolt; Fermina pins the slaver down as Carlota decapitates him while he rapes another enslaved woman. In order to render the slaver submissive, so that Carlota can swiftly decapitate him, the enslaved rape victim threatens castration with a machete when the slaver is at his most vulnerable state: at the point of ejaculation. The bearded female warrior Orisha, Oya-Yansa, who wields fire and tornadoes, intercedes by providing light and subduing the slaver’s wife with her commanding presence.

Lili Bernard. Carlota Slaying the Slaver (after Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612), 2017. Oil on Canvas, 60″x72″

Lili Bernard. Carlota Slaying the Slaver (after Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612), 2017. Oil on Canvas, 60″x72″

In all of the paintings slavery and sexual violence collide with indomitable beauty and spirituality.  Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus on an oyster shell in the Mediterranean, becomes The Sale of Venus on the auction block in the Caribbean. Venus, in bondage, in her most vulnerable and yet powerful state of childbirth, is being poked and prodded by a handsome and ruthless bidder.  The Orishas Chango, Yemayá and Ochun along with their syncretized Catholic counterparts, Santa Barbara, La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre (the Blessed Mother who is Cuba’s patron saint) and the Christ Child come to her aid.

“Lili Bernard manifests the Orishas in an epic painting approach that combines historical ecstasy with spiritual expressionism pulsating in a lush painterly approach.”MAT GLEASON, Coagula Art Journal

The Sale of Venus (after Sandro Botecelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486), Oil on Canvas, 96”x72” © 2011by Lili Bernard

Lili Bernard.  The Sale of Venus (after Sandro Botecelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486), 2011.  Oil on Canvas, 63”x96”