Wilson, Fred

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Wilson, Fred

August 25, 1954

Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx, New York, and earned his B.F.A. degree from the State University of New York, College at Purchase in 1976. As a young artist he worked temporarily at the Longwoods Art Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York. Since the late 1980s, Wilson has explored the intersection of race discourse and the history of museums through innovative installation art projects that emphasize archiving, collecting, and display. Unlike traditional painting and sculpture, installation art is site-specific, temporary, and designed to surround or interact with the viewer. In 1990, at White Columns Gallery in New York, the artist exhibited The Other Museum, a mock-ethnographic display that used African "artifacts" and innovative wall labels to highlight the historical relationship between European colonialism, slavery, and museum collecting practices.

One of Wilson's best-known exhibitions is Mining the Museum (1992), which was jointly supported by the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and the Maryland Historical Society. For this work the artist studied the archives and permanent exhibitions of the Maryland Historical Society in order to reinstall the collection in new, more provocative displays. Wilson brought to light histories that had been buried in the museum's basement for decades, particularly those of African Americans and Native Americans in Maryland. One of the more powerful juxtapositions of the exhibition, Metalwork 17931880, grouped together Baltimore repoussé silver vessels with a single pair of iron slave shackles. The interdependence of slave labor and a luxury economy was made evident in the visual contrast of fine silver craftsmanship and abject ironwork. The nearly one-hundred-year time span from 1793 to 1880 also marked the gradual abolition of slavery in the Americas from the 1793 Anti-Slavery Act of Ontario, Canada, to the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1880.

Since the early 1990s, Fred Wilson has offered critical interpretations of numerous art museums and their collections in North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He has been the recipient of major awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Association of Museums, and the New York State Council on the Arts. He was given a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1999. In 2003 Wilson was selected as the United States representative to the Venice Biennale, the second artist of African-American descent granted this prestigious honor. His project for the Bien-nale mapped the presence of Africans in the city of Venice from the time of the Moors to the present day, taking its titleSpeak of Me as I Am from Shakespeare's Othello. All of Fred Wilson's artworks offer careful critiques of representation, demonstrating how race discourse and historical relations of power circulate in museums and visual culture.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary


Berger, Maurice, Fred Wilson, and Jennifer González. Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 19792000: Issues in Cultural Theory 4. Baltimore, Md.: Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2001.

Corrin, Lisa G. Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson. New York: New Press, 1994.

jennifer a. gonzÁlez (2005)

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