I first came across the pitcher by accident. I was new at the MFA, and my coworker was showing me funky objects most people don’t come to see in the tucked-away corridors of the Museum. All along, I was focused on finding art by Black artists, or even anything depicting Black figures, but the Museum was lacking. And that’s when I saw it.
My initial impression of the pitcher was discomfort. I recognized it was a caricature, and when I went further and read the description, my discomfort turned to sadness, followed by anger. This was not a random bout of racism; it’s thought to be a specific parody of a renowned personage from my cultural heritage—Toussaint Louverture.
I am Haitian, and I’m extremely proud of my history and the fact that we’re not only the first Black republic to have gained our independence, but a symbol of all Black liberation. Toussaint Louverture (1744–1803) led the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the first successful war for independence by enslaved people in the Americas. He’s controversial to some, but to Haitians, there is no greater man.
The Museum’s interpretation says the pitcher, which was made in about 1840 at an unknown pottery in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, provokes “challenging conversations,” and it notes the object is still being studied. But what type of challenging conversations is it supposed to spark? The Museum doesn’t say. And if it’s such an important object, one wonders why it’s displayed where few visitors are likely to find it. This doesn’t address the fact that the vase is the only object in the entire Museum—at least on view—that depicts Haitian culture in any sort of way. Not only does the MFA not have any art by Haitian artists on view, the one representation of Haitian culture is a racist depiction of a hero who has been characterized as a “ruthless warlord.”
I have repeatedly gone back to the pitcher and tried to look at it how the MFA wants me—us—to look at it. We’re encouraged to have a conversation about why it could possibly be in a museum, but I can’t fathom why. I can’t lie—I don’t think this object has any artistic merit. It’s incredibly offensive, stereotypical, and racist. I hate it. To me, it provokes nothing beyond discomfort—and what is discomfort besides a shallow attempt at being deep? It’s empty.