Cameron Rowland’s Difficult Art

Few young artists anywhere have garnered as much attention as quickly as Cameron Rowland, they won a $625,000 “genius” fellowship and the inaugural $100,000 Nomura Emerging, and their work is now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. But Rowland’s subject matter is tough and knotty, and seemingly at odds with such stardom. Their focus is typically the way that everyday objects—pieces of furniture, elements of design—make visible different of systemic, and they are always more concerned with ideas than aesthetics.

Still, each time Rowland stages a new exhibition, it’s an event, and at last, their work touched down in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Rowland’s newest show, “3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73,” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA), and the museum has promised it will go back on view once. As with other Rowland efforts, it’s an intellectual endeavor. The ICA’s exhibition space mostly blank, and there’s no wall text or curatorial statement. In their place, visitors receive a 19-page pamphlet to navigate the gallery. If you have both patience to read a heavily annotated essay, Rowland explains the show’s subject: the slave trade and its ongoing ramifications for society.

Scattered throughout are items that are virtually meaningless without Rowland’s essay. Twenty-three brass manillas manufactured in 18th-century Birmingham lie in a pile on the floor of the lower gallery among glass beads. The work is titled Pacotille, its name a reference to the French word for “rubbish.” These copper and brass were manufactured as African trade goods in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Ireland, and they were essentially worthless, but were appropriated as currency. Enslaved Africans were valued at 12–15 manillas in the early by the Portuguese, and Europeans would offer manillas, but never accepted them as credit themselves.

From there Rowland goes on to connect the slave trade to the current moment—and to the ICA itself. The ICA has been based at 12 Carlton House, in a building owned by the Crown. The site was formally the home of King George IV, who refurbished the building, adding four mahogany doors and a wooden handrail that leads you to the current upper gallery. Currently sited there is a mortgage contract mounted over several frames. Mahogany used in 18th-century furniture was and milled by Caribbean wageless workers for the refinement and high-cultured tastes of Britons. Rowland claimed those mahogany elements and called them an artwork, titled Encumbrance, which was mortgaged for £1,000 per piece by the ICA to Encumbrance Inc. just weeks before the exhibition opening. The loan will not be repaid for as long as the mahogany remains a part of the building.

With that piece, Rowland is drawing on one of the cardinal principles of Afro-pessimism, a line of thinking which partly grew out of work by Jamaican scholar Orlando Patterson, who wrote that Blackness cannot be separated from slavery. According to Patterson, instead of defining enslaved Africans as forced or cheap labor, they are more acutely regarded as property. The enslaved were objectified in such a way that they were legally made an object to be used and exchanged like property, far from human, taking from their very being. Hence why Rowland has literally envisioned the transatlantic slave trade in the form of ready-made objects, which, like the slaves themselves, are here guided by land and property contracts.