Glenn Ligon. The Death of Tom. 2008

Glenn Ligon The Death of Tom 2008

  • Not on view

For this project Ligon originally intended to re-create the last scene of a 1903 silent film adaptation of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the early film, white actors in blackface played the principal roles. Tom, the film’s protagonist and a slave, dies in the final scene, and images of the future—including the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves—materialize behind him.

After footage of his reenactment was processed, Ligon discovered that the film was blurred and the imagery had disappeared. The artist recognized an affinity between this spectral footage and his own earlier work, much of which, he has said, is about “visibility and legibility being a metaphor for certain kinds of historical disappearance.” Leaving the footage unedited, Ligon added a commissioned score played by the jazz pianist Jason Moran, based on the vaudeville song “Nobody.” In the final work, a cinematic scenario deeply intertwined with the complex and painful history of representations of ethnic difference has been transformed into a series of abstract black, white, and gray traces.

Gallery label from Contemporary Art from the Collection, June 30, 2010–September 12, 2011 .
16mm film transferred to video (black and white, sound)
23 min.
Gift of Agnes Gund, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, Ninah and Michael Lynne
Object number
© 2020 Glenn Ligon
Media and Performance

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