Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx in 1954 to a Caribbean mother and an African American father. He describes himself as of "African, Native American, European and Amerindian" descent. Wilson spent most of his childhood in an all-white enclave in Westchester, NY where his family was greeted with racist graffiti—NIGERS [sic] GO BACK TO AFRICA—before they had even moved in.
In the late seventies, Wilson was employed in various professions including several within the art world. He was an art installer, curator, and guard at most of NY’s major museums. These roles made him particularly aware of what art *wasn’t* being shown to the public. Prompted by this unique perspective, Wilson became a conceptual artist and has since created site-specific installations in collaboration with museums and cultural institutions throughout the world. Wilson uses the art and artifacts from within a given museum’s collection, rearranging them to reveal the racism and gender politics often overlooked. He juxtaposes objects that weren’t originally intended to go together, creating unexpected, provocative, and uncomfortable arrangements for his viewers, prompting them to rethink historical “truths” and to ponder the erasure and exclusion of African Americans and Native Americans in the art world.
One of the best examples of Wilson’s unique artistic style is evident in his creation “Mining the Museum,” the pivotal exhibition in Baltimore from the early '90s which first gained him notoriety. In this installation, he placed a whipping post from pre-Civil War America in a gallery and surrounded it with four ornate Victorian-style chairs, he included slave shackles within an arrangement of fine silver, and presented a Ku Klux Klan hood in an Edwardian-era baby carriage—all from the permanent collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
Fred Wilson’s many accolades include the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant (1999), amongst others.
African American artist #6 of 25 in my project “Have You Heard Of…?”
Metalwork. Slave shackles with silver pieces. Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson. Maryland Historical Society, 1992-1993. Joint exhibition with The Contemporary in Baltimore.
"Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960" from Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson. Maryland Historical Society, 1992-1993. Joint exhibition with The Contemporary in Baltimore.
KKK hood in Edwardian-era baby carriage. Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson. Maryland Historical Society, 1992-1993. Joint exhibition with The Contemporary in Baltimore.
Fred Wilson, "Grey Area (Black Version)," 1993. Five painted plaster busts, five painted plaster wooden shelves.
Fred Wilson, “Guarded View” 1991
“Fred Wilson’s Guarded View aggressively confronts viewers with four black, headless mannequins dressed as museum guards. Each figure wears a uniform, dating to the early 1990s, from one of four New York cultural institutions: the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Despite this specificity, the faceless mannequins underscore the anonymity expected of security personnel, who are tasked with protecting art and the public while remaining inconspicuous. It also addresses the racial dynamics of the museum space, in which the guards may be the only people of color present.
This work originally appeared in the Whitney’s then controversial 1994 exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, which would prove to be a defining moment for the burgeoning movement of identity politics.”
–Description from the Whitney Museum of American Art