"If These Walls Could Talk," a richly embroidered show that explores race and class in early Austin, operates on five levels of perception.
The house: The Neill-Cochran House in the West Campus neighborhood was built by slaves in 1855. The two-story limestone residence, raised by master builder Abner Cook, who also oversaw the construction of the Texas Governor’s Mansion, greets the visitor with rows of imposing Gothic Revival columns, now out of place among the modern towers that crowd its complicated history. This architectural treasure trove is maintained as a house museum with period impeccable furniture, art and décor.
Yet tirelessly creative executive director Rowena Houghton Dasch does not leave well enough alone. She and her team are constantly reinterpreting the ante-bellum artifact and its very human context and history. Particularly apt for this show is the "dependency" out back, likely the only surviving slave quarters in Austin. As Dasch points out, its cramped, dark rooms contrast markedly with the spacious, light-filled procession of spaces in the main house.
The art: Ginger Henry Geyer is an extraordinary artist who fashions otherwise ordinary-looking objects out of porcelain. What looks like fabric, food, cardboard, metal, leather, paper or art supplies are among her mind-blowing sculptural creations molded from ceramic material commonly associated with dinner-table dishes. She is particularly witty when she interprets the products of popular commercial culture, including breakfast cereal boxes and toys, all informed by images from art history.
Seventy-eight carefully notated pieces can currently be seen around the house and its dependency. They quietly yet instantly transform the museum into a place where life takes place, where things are left around and everyday activity is imaginatively possible. The porcelain is accompanied by placards with silhouettes that remind one in short sayings of the relationships among the masters and servants who occupied these rooms.
The panels: Recently, a class from the University of Texas spent a semester researching the black Austinites who built the house as well as much of the rest of the early city. The results of that study now hang on the walls of the museum’s largest room — not large enough, however to handle everyone who wants to see this show and its extra programs that continue through May 3. Still, those lucky enough to see it on Feb. 27 fit comfortably in the space on wooden folding chairs.
The walls reel with stories, impossible to absorb absolutely in one visit. It is essential that these findings — which start with Spanish slaves in Texas and continue through Emancipation, freedom colonies, later segregation and most recent history — land in a permanent place so that folks can learn about the roles of race in Austin’s past. Meanwhile, they make a handy backdrop for the performances and talks that go along with "If These Walls Could Talk."
The house, art exhibit and panels described above can be seen through guided and self-guided tours whenever the museum is open.
Hybrid events add more elements, such as performers and speakers.
The performances: The primary performer in this series is Jennifer Rousseau Cumberbatch, a longtime and much-loved Austin pastor, counselor, actress and playwright. Cumberbatch performs different pieces during the run of the show, but on Feb. 17, she interpreted two local slave narratives, anchoring the rest of the evening in a living body that spoke of concrete memories about Austin’s past.
Cumberbatch treated both of her subjects precisely and believably. She also shared a moving video of the late artistic leader Boyd Vance, who had originally directed "Bluebellies in Austin: Readings from the Travis County Slave Narratives." Performing one of the first-person anecdotes, Vance provided an essential link to the storytellers of the more distant past.
The history: On Feb. 27, the marquee speaker was Edmund "Ted" Gordon, UT’s vice-provost for diversity and the founding chair of the department of African and African diaspora studies. Speaking softly but clearly while deftly flying through eye-opening slides, Gordon elaborated on the subject: "Black Builders of a White City: Erecting Race in Early Austin." His chief point: While Latinos now construct the New Austin, African Americans built Old Austin.
One of his most salient lines of observation: That the ex-slaves used the construction skills developed while building places such the Neill-Cochran House on the nearby freedom colonies that sprang up around Austin after Emancipation, such as the Gold Dollar building, the only physical reminder of the once thriving Wheatville freedmen’s community located just a block away for decades.
One could spend much more space on Gordon’s thoughts on free blacks, unequal municipal amenities and, especially, the differences in ways we preserve the material memory of Austin based on power and race, but given the breadth and depth of "If These Walls Could Talk," his memorable conclusions were but parts of a magnificent whole.