Essay by Daniel Belasco

Several months after I started working in New Paltz, NY, I first saw an odd blue and yellow historical marker standing outside a colonial house in the town’s Historic Huguenot Street district. After listing the year of construction (1698) and notable owners (Elting family), the text concludes, “This house has an interesting sub-cellar.” At first I thought little of it. A year or so later, when touring the interior of the house, I entered the cramped sub-cellar and realized it was slave quarters.  It was distressing that such an ominous space could exist so unremarkably in a town long associated with liberal politics. Memorializing the heritage of the Huguenot community that owned it, this house also speaks to the hidden history of enslaved Africans in New York State.  Slavery was part of the state’s economic, agricultural, and domestic life until its abolition in 1827.  Yet rarely do public images, such as the historical marker, raise our awareness of these facts without tiptoeing around the discomfort caused from frank discussion of the region’s past violations of human rights.

Fortunately, we have painters like Abshalom Jac Lahav, who have few qualms about provoking such strong emotional reactions. Lahav’s painting series Slaves (2012–present), like his previous portrait series 48 Jews (2007–2009) and Great Americans (2008–2011), delves into fraught symbolic territory. In each series, Lahav employs portraiture to question basic assumptions about the relationship of historical memory and collective identity. Lahav takes the viewer on an impolite journey from ignorance to awareness, aggressively pushing an engagement with stereotypes and values. Lahav’s portraits can be visually beautiful but jarringly “wrong” representations with intense swaths of color and irreverent compositions that often overwhelm our ability to read the likeness. For Lahav, familiar representations become “oscillations” between the known and unknown, the personal and the political, the abstract and the representational. The viewer goes along for the ride. 

In all three of Lahav’s portrait series the dramatic movements spring from embedded narratives of liberation, from the Jewish Exodus to the American Revolution to the emancipation of slaves. The stakes seem higher in Slaves than in 48 Jews and Great Americans, however, as Lahav, an Israeli-born American, is identifying with images of others. The plainly entitled Slaves is a series of 28 oil paintings, each 32 x 24 inches, that depict varied historical and contemporary individuals who fall into the category of “slaves” because they all had lived as a slave for a period in their lives. To select his subjects, Lahav searched the Internet to filter images, index names, and narrate stories that both confirm and subvert our notions of a “slave.” For the average viewer, the stereotypical image might be an enslaved African American in the 19th century South. Lahav skillfully disrupts this by including unexpected subjects such as Miguel Cervantes, one of the founders of Western literature, who was imprisoned and enslaved as a young man in Spain in the 1570s, and Francis Bok, a memoirist who escaped slavery in South Sudan in the 1990s. The intersection of gender and slavery is visualized with Nurbana Sultan, a woman in the Ottoman sultan’s harem who rose to great power in 16th century Turkey. Nevertheless, the majority of the subjects in the series are African Americans, including the iconic abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman (each appeared on a U.S. postage stamp), and the lesser known Joshua Glover and Harriet Jacobs. 

Lahav’s portrait series of historical figures echo those of artists Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter, who paint from photographs of politicians and writers to probe their significance in European national identities. Lahav inverts these painters’ cool reserve with hot-tempered angst to stimulate emotional effects from the disturbing to the sensuous. Lahav uses decorative patterns, costumes, props, and other means of visualizing character traits and social status. He paints in a range of styles that reference the expressionism of Paul Gauguin and Max Beckmann, the abstraction of Robert Motherwell and Philip Taaffe, and the rowdy figuration of R.B. Kitaj and Robert Colescott. Photorealistic blurs, drips of thin paint, intricate decoration, and erratic brushstrokes make transparent the artist’s acts of strategic dysrepresentation. Lahav’s painted canvases are active sites for the revelation of the paradoxes of image as memory storage.

Many of the individuals depicted in Slaves authored memoirs or delivered political oratory. They entered history primarily because they told their stories of liberation from slavery, thus revealing the experience of slavery as conditional and non-essential. Lahav’s paintings are on the one hand highly personal and idiosyncratic visual interpretations of his subjects, and on the other allegories for the centrality of slavery and liberation in the Western conception of the self as historical actor. The Slaves series performs subterranean histories that are both ambiguous and the foundations of modern identity.