American artist Fred Wilson (born in 1954) challenges assumptions about the history, culture, race, and conventions of museum display. Since 2003, he has designed grand Murano chandeliers, manufactured in a glass workshop, as anchor objects for installations. The Way the Moon’s in Love with the Dark (on view in The Light Show through March 7, 2021) is a glass chandelier based on historic Venetian styles in the DAM's modern and contemporary art collection.
Venetian & Ottoman Influences
This chandelier incorporates centuries-old traditions of the East and West, merging lighting styles from the Islamic and Christian worlds. Wilson created it as part of Afro Kismet, exhibited at the Pera Museum for the 2017 Istanbul Biennial. He researched the histories of conflict and cooperation between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice, both known for their glass industries. These governing powers—with different religious, aesthetic, and ethnic heritages—mediated cultural relationships between Europeans, Asians, and Africans that were complicated, in part, because of their geographic locations and, in part, because of their political might.
References to Othello & Gannibal
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) addressed this issue in The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, a play about a dark-skinned man who commits suicide because of his star-crossed and taboo love for Desdemona, who was white. Shakespeare's character is a Moorish noble who achieves a high rank in the Venetian army and recognition among nobility. Before Wilson made The Way the Moon's in Love with the Dark, his chandeliers were titled with a phrase from Othello.
For The Way the Moon's in Love with the Dark, he was inspired by a passage about Shakespeare's characters, Othello and his wife Desdemona, in an unpublished novel by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) that he discovered while researching the Russian author's life. Wilson's title is a version of Pushkin's lines, "Why does young Desdemona trim/ Her love for a blackamoor's delight/ As the moon loves the dark of night?"
Pushkin's maternal great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), an African page who was kidnapped (probably in Cameroon), taken to the Ottoman Sultan's court in Istanbul, and dispatched to Russia as a gift to Peter the Great. The emperor appreciated Gannibal's intelligence, freed him, and brought him into the royal household as a godson. Gannibal eventually achieved a high position in the Russian military and became a confidante of the imperial family. Pushkin understood the parallels between his great-grandfather's lived experience and the fictive character of Othello.
Illuminating Painful Truths
How people, traditions, and ideas circulate, whether by choice or forced transit, became Wilson's theme in The Way the Moon's in Love with the Dark. Moorish lanterns dangle between the symmetrical black arms of the branched Murano chandelier, seeming to dance around its circumference.
For Wilson, the black glass refers to the exotic position of Africans and their descendants in European and Ottoman imperial courts. Its opacity creates shade instead of light. The clear mosque lamps hang in tiers like small satellites caught in the gravitational orbit of the Murano chandelier. As a commentator on societal conditions, Wilson uses historic circumstances to illuminate awkward, painful truths that have relevance today.