Observing both President’s Day and Black History Month, Henry Wiencek – a scholar of Thomas Jefferson and author of the controversial book “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” – paid tribute Monday to the Australian artist Judy Watson and her “experimental beds” exhibit in a lecture at the auditorium of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library.
“The inspiring evening that brought together Henry Wiencek’s insights with Judy Watson’s wonderful prints is what the collaborative enterprise of the library is all about,” said Hoke Perkins, director of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture.
A fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Wiencek has studied and written extensively on the subjects of George Washington, Jefferson, slavery and issues of race.
His presentation, “Seeing Jefferson from Australia,” was billed as a talk about “false identities, escape, the mingling of blood, continental explorations and the making of a university, all colliding and somehow coalescing in the six etchings of Judy Watson.”
Like Wiencek’s recent book, Watson’s art challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding Jefferson and slavery.
“Both Wiencek and Watson add to what we already know about Jefferson, asking us to look at him anew with the recognition that our founder fully participated in the violence that was American slavery,” said Margo Smith, director and curator of U.Va.’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, which sponsored the lecture.
Since its publication in October, Wiencek’s “Master of the Mountain” has created a stir among Jefferson scholars primarily because of Wiencek’s contention that in the 1790s, Jefferson became so convinced of the economic value of slavery that he completely abandoned his earlier antislavery sentiments.
Several Jefferson scholars have been critical of “Master of the Mountain,” denouncing Wiencek’s primary research and interpretations as lacking in originality.
However, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley recognized Wiencek’s work as one of the best books of the year, describing it as “a devastating picture of the slaveocracy maintained by the author of the Declaration of Independence at his plantations at Monticello.”
Wiencek’s book has also garnered praise from NPR, The Wall Street Journal and Salon (“Every American should read it”), and has been a cover story for Smithsonian and American History magazines.
Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies counts more than 400 Jefferson titles published in the past five years. but few have raised such a ruckus as Wiencek’s work.
A November New York Times article about the book’s controversy suggests that the divergence of the response to Wiencek’s work highlights the difference between the ways professionals and lay readers approach history. In fact, this particular Jeffersonian debate underscores the tense relations between academic historians and independent scholars working the same beat, especially one as charged as the relationship between the founding fathers and slavery.
During Monday’s talk, Wiencek focused less on his own book and more on the extraordinary etchings in Watson’s “experimental beds” exhibit, on view through May 11 in the South Gallery of Harrison Institute.
“Watson’s works are relevant to the University today because she looks very deeply into the Jeffersonian puzzle, which is something we’re all still grappling with,” Wiencek said.
In his talk, Wiencek explored how the themes of Jefferson’s legacy in America resonate just as powerfully in Australia through Watson’s art, serving as proof that “history touches upon universal human struggles.”
Wiencek underscored the ideas of his lecture with a slideshow that showed Watson’s art as well as her visits to Monticello and her work with art students at the University during her 2011 residency.
Wiencek mostly used Watson’s words to convey his message. His talk took shape as a conversation with Watson herself – as if she were present on the stage – as he read excerpts from her emails, correspondence, notes and interviews.
He pointed out details of Watson’s work, hidden shapes and images beneath the overlay over Jefferson’s drawings of the Academical Village – what Watson calls “the bones of the work, the literal foundations on which the images float.”
As both an Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian, Watson’s identity fits somewhere in between. Wiencek recalled her words: “I embody the notion of two cultural frameworks occupying the same cultural space” – and then noted this in-between-ness as the space of Watson’s art.
“While perusing Henry’s book, I have fallen back into the state of reverie that I was in when I was making ‘experimental beds’ and trawling through the research,” Watson wrote in an email.
“For me, the questions raised by Henry’s book are not just about Jefferson and Virginia, but explode into a shared past where my relatives, Aboriginal and white, were working and living together on cattle properties in Queensland and the Northern Territory,” Watson wrote.
Wiencek discussed the mystery of Watson’s art, its in-between-ness, as being located in its very title, “experimental beds.” He noted that during a tour of Monticello, Watson learned that Jefferson had called an area of his gardens “experimental beds,” representing the “rational, enlightened and scientific” side of Jefferson.
But the exhibit’s title implies another “experimental bed,” involving the sexual relationship between Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings – and the consequent progeny of mixed descent.
“Wiencek and Watson both give an individual face to the institution of slavery,” Smith said. “By talking about the shared experiences of African-Americans and Aboriginal people in Australia – people who are known to us in history or, in Watson’s case, in living memory – we are able to see the impact on individual lives.”
In an interview prior to his talk, Wiencek remarked on the parallels between “Master of the Mountain” and Watson’s art.
“I think that one of the strongest connections is the sense of encountering a mystery, something that you really don’t entirely understand,” Wiencek said.
He pointed out that Jefferson sought to bring rational order to his world but, in the end, the desires of the unconscious could not be contained. Watson’s art reveals the chaos underneath, he said.
“That’s what I sensed in my research into Jefferson for my book, and I think that Watson very powerfully illustrates it with her work,” Wiencek said.