GLC@Lunch with Martha McNamara: “Tovookan’s Tale: A Visual Narrative of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum America”
A six-foot long, 18-inch high painted cotton banner tells a harrowing story of slavery and freedom in just four pictorial vignettes. Tovookan (who was later given the Portuguese name Pedro) painted the banner in his mid-twenties to help tell the tale of his enslavement on Africa’s east coast, his transportation to Rio de Janeiro and New England, and, ultimately, his experience living in a rural Maine town in the 1850s. Though clearly narrating his experience of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Pedro Tovookan’s banner is not strictly autobiographical. The first vignette depicts not his home in Africa, but Rio de Janeiro where American diplomats intervened in his captivity. This is a clue that unlocks one context for the drawing: its use as part of a performance for an 1856 anti-slavery political campaign in Massachusetts. The banner also reveals the role that contemporary visual culture – in particular, commercial panoramas regularly exhibited in 19th-century American cities – played in shaping Pedro Tovookan’s perceptions of Rio de Janeiro and New England. Telling a densely layered story in just a few compact images, the watercolor banner presents a rare opportunity for us to interrogate the intersection of visual images, cultural landscapes, narrative, performance, and politics in the life story of an African boy, teenager, and young man.