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La Vaughn Belle: A History of Unruly Returns


January 13, 2024 - July 21, 2024


This exhibition is included in a paid General Admission ticket.

Belle_on the service to a kingdom photo credit La Vaughn Belle (large) copy
"A History of Unruly Returns does not simply represent an reflects a counter-archive, documenting Belle’s continuous process of challenging colonial practices that fragment the lives and experiences of the Caribbean. These works show the complexity of cultural fragmentation and how processes of reconfiguration can physically take up space in between the cracks and voids of history, while also serving as a map to reroute and locate selfhood." 

—Dr. Michael K. Wilson, Assistant Curator, African American Museum in Philadelphia

In fall 2020, the National Nordic Museum opened the first solo exhibition of La Vaughn Belle’s work in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibition, titled La Vaughn Belle: A History of Unruly Returns, is reimagined and represented in expanded form in the Museum’s Barbro Osher and Fjord Hall Alcove Galleries.

In the mid-17th century, Denmark established a colonial presence in the Caribbean and participated in the transatlantic slave trade until the early 19th century.

Though Denmark was the first European country to abolish the transport of enslaved Africans in 1792, approximately 120,000 people from present-day Ghana were brought to the Danish West Indies (now the United States Virgin Islands) to plant and harvest sugar cane. The emancipation of slaves on the Danish West Indies occurred in 1848, and the Virgin Islands’ former plantation economy collapsed. In 1917, Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas were sold to the United States and introduced into yet another national narrative. This exhibition brings to light whole truths of this historical episode through the fragments of material culture it left behind.

La Vaughn Belle: A History of Unruly Returns features the paintings, ceramics, and collages of contemporary artist La Vaughn Belle. Based on the island of Saint Croix, Belle investigates the legacy of colonialism. The exhibition will feature large-scale paintings from her series “Chaney (We Live in the Fragments)” (2015-present). “Chaney” refers to ceramic shards found in abundance in the soil of Saint Croix. Belle explains, “There are small fragments of pottery, often blue and white, that surface the soil in the Virgin Islands after a hard rain and glimmer. Coming first as plates, tea pots and cups from Holland, England, Denmark and North America as part of the vast transatlantic trade of the last centuries of the second millennia, they became its detritus, broken down into the soil, just like the traded bodies. The fragments return to the open air as offerings. Children would pick up these shards, claim them and grind them round to mimic coins.” The unearthing of this patterned pottery evokes the past and its legacy. Belle paints enlargements of different Chaney patterns and, when pieced together as a series, the images become a visual metaphor for the diverse origins and identities of Caribbean people today. Belle notes that “as daughters and sons of the dispersion, we are but many fragments – Danish, British, Yoruba, Akwamu, Kalinago, Taino – we are pieces of patterns and peoples that we may no longer recognize or acknowledge.”

This exhibition is organized by Leslie Anne Anderson, Chief Curator, National Nordic Museum.

About La Vaughn Belle

head shot Nov 2023 La Vaughn Belle_reduced

La Vaughn Belle makes visible the unremembered. By exploring the material culture, looking for hidden stories and connections, Belle creates narratives from fragments. Working in a variety of disciplines her practice includes: painting, installation, photography, writing, video and public interventions. Her work with colonial era pottery led to a commission with the renowned brand of porcelain products, the Royal Copenhagen. She has exhibited her work in the Caribbean, the USA and Europe in institutions such as the Museo del Barrio (NY), Casa de las Americas (Cuba), the Museum of the African Diaspora (CA) and Kunsthal Charlottenborg (DK). Her art is in the collections of the National Photography Museum and the Vestsjælland Museum in Denmark. She is the co-creator of I Am Queen Mary, the artist-led groundbreaking monument that confronted the Danish colonial amnesia while commemorating the legacies of resistance of the African people who were brought to the former Danish West Indies. The project was featured in over 100 media outlets around the world including the NY Times, Politiken, VICE, the BBC and Le Monde. Belle holds an MFA from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba and an MA and BA from Columbia University in NY. She was a finalist for the She Built NYC project to develop a monument to memorialize the legacy of Shirley Chisholm and for the Inequality in Bronze project in Philadelphia to redesign one of the first monuments to an enslaved woman at the Stenton historic house museum. As a 2018-2020 fellow at the Social Justice Institute at the Barnard Research Center for Women at Columbia University she researched the ‘citizenless’ Virgin Islanders in the Harlem Renaissance. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled How To Survive Colonial Nostalgia. Her studio is based in the Virgin Islands.

Click here to visit her website.

All photos courtesy of the artist.