Jasmine Abena Colgan Uses Cowrie Shells to Tell the Story of Slavery

The fourth project in the exhibition is a collection of works by American-Ghanian artist Jasmine Abena Colgan ’13. A CAM alum, Colgan received her BFA in photography at CU Denver, then continued her studies at CU Boulder, where she received an MFA in Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies. Colgan, who has a skin condition called vitiligo, has returned to CAM to teach photography classes. As a “woman of colors”, Colgan invites students to approach uncomfortable conversations about race and critical theory through photography.

Colgan’s work throughout the gallery—a combination of installation pieces and photographs—is visually stunning and pleasant to look at. Cowrie shells are the main theme of the work, and they appear spilling from a burlap bag, hanging from delicate golden chains, composing pieces of jewelry, and the subject of a collection of photographs. The cowrie shells have spiritual significance, explains Colgan. They are often used in divination practices in Africa and have largely become associated with that continent. However, they also have a more uncomfortable legacy. Cowrie shells were originally brought to the continent by white people to buy slaves. It took about 6,370 shells to purchase another human during the height of the slave trade. Ever the pragmatists, slave traders would bring the shells from their native Europe or colonial America in barrels on their ships, planning for the eventuality that the weight of the shells would be replaced by the weight of human cargo.

For her master’s work, Colgan traveled to Ghana with funding from a Nest Grant. She was able to purchase gold from one of the first goldmines that initiated the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Colgan sought the help of Marissa Martinez, a chemist, who created a solution with the gold that Colgan then used to develop photographs she took of cowrie shells. The resulting work is titled Ghanatype, so named in reference to Chrysotype, the original photographic process created by John Herschel using gold to develop images. Ghanatype represents the ability to “confront historical issues and address contemporary approaches in creating art.”

In another work, One Human’s Worth, Colgan juxtaposes the fact that white men laid claim to women’s bodies through the practice of slavery all those years ago and the fact that white men still do this through our current laws surrounding reproductive rights.

Colgan says she drew inspiration for her artwork from Pratt’s Black in America performance, in which he relates a true story about a time he was running across his college campus carrying a violin and was stopped by a police officer, who assumed Pratt had stolen the instrument. Colgan related to the story because of her own background as a violin player.

At The Still Point of the Turning of the World on Display Through August 27th

At the Still Point of the Turning of the World: Black in America is on display now at the CU Denver Experience Gallery (formerly Next Stage Gallery), located across from the Buell Theater in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The exhibition will be open until August 27th. Visit the gallery’s website for hours and other information.

Written by Megan Briggs-Pintel, CAM Communications

College of Arts & Media

CU Denver

Arts Building

1150 10th Street

Suite 177

Denver, CO 80204


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