Free to Speak - A Convening on Art, Slavery, and Reconciliation


A Convening on Art, Slavery, and Reconciliation

Nov 30 — Dec 1, 2023

Presented as part of Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina

A celebration of Black creativity, agency, and memory

Join UMMA for “Free To Speak!” the culminating events of Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina featuring contemporary artists Theaster Gates and Adebunmi Gbadebo, National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney, and social justice curator Monica O. Montgomery

Part storytelling, party scholarly convening, “Free To Speak!” is a fall gathering focused on uplifting artistic practice, celebrating diverse perspectives, and inspiring institutions to repair racial injustices. 

“Free to Speak!” aims to contribute to urgent national conversations about racial justice while exploring what it means to exhibit materials in Southeast Michigan made by enslaved people, especially in light of the region’s relationships to the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration, the explosion of Black music and culture, and ongoing racial protest and liberation movements. 

As UMMA concludes their presentation of Hear Me Now, the perspectives that emerge from this convening will be a source of model making to inspire new practices in the arts and culture field.





All of UMMA’s public areas and galleries are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Please ask your check-in host for assistance borrowing a wheelchair upon arrival.

Participant Bios

Artist and social innovator Theaster Gates lives and works in Chicago. Trained in urban planning and ceramics, his artistic practice translates the intricacies of Blackness through space theory and land development, sculpture, and performance. Through the expansiveness of his approach as a thinker, maker, and builder, he extends the role of the artist as an agent of change. His performance practice and visual work find roots in Black knowledge, objects, history, and archives. His work focuses on the possibility of the ​“life within things” and redeems spaces that have been left behind. He is the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, an artist-led, community-based platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation whose mission is to demonstrate the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial cultural initiatives enriched by three core values: Black people matter, Black spaces matter, and Black objects matter.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, a multimedia artist, explores the intersections of land, matter, and memory on sites of slavery using materials like indigo dye, plantation soil, and Black hair. She holds a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, NY, and a Creative Place Keeping certification from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is a 2022 Pew Fellow, 2023 Maxwell and Hanrahan Fellow, and A.I.R at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia. Gbadebo has been written about in notable publications like The New York Times and Forbes. She has spoken at institutions like the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Gbadebo's art resides in permanent collections at institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She is currently designing a monument at Clemson University to honor enslaved laborers who transformed Fort Hill Plantation into the university.

Nikky Finney has spent her career illuminating the Southern cultural and political heritage of Black people in ways that resonate throughout the country and world. Her ongoing legacy of poignant expression, indomitable truth, and devotion to social justice has enriched the country and world. In her career of more than 30 years, Finney has written six books and hundreds of poems and essays that explore and confront the experiences that have shaped life in the South for herself and countless other African Americans. Her most recent book, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) is an enduring love song to her father and 400 years of African American fight and ingenuity. Finney is Carolina Distinguished Professor at USC in Columbia where she is also Director of the Ernest A. Finney Jr. Cultural Arts Center, a 21st century arts and cultural center named for her father, an exciting endeavor deeply planted in the twin soils of creativity and Black cultural expression.

Monica O. Montgomery is a museum thought leader and independent curator at the nexus of culture, community engagement, and equity. She consults with a myriad of organizations, corporations, associations, non profits, universities and museums on contemporary art, community engagement and championing inclusion and belonging to spark ecologies of promise. Known for curating social justice exhibits and founding diversity initiative Museum Hue, over the last 2 decades she has served as an executive director, fundraiser, marketer, educator, and program director. Her career credits include a TedX talk & SXSW plenary and over 40+ curated contemporary art and public history exhibits with renowned organizations like the South African Embassy, Brooklyn Museum, Portland Art Museum, Community Art Center, T Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, The New School. Teachers College, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Weeksville Heritage Center and The Highline among others. She served as Curator of Social Justice and Special Programs for the FUTURES exhibition, at Smithsonian Arts & Industries, organizing an interactive exhibit of art, technology and history to celebrate the Smithsonian Institutions 175th Anniversary. 

Lightning Talk Speakers


Descendant Family of David Drake

Fortune Carolina, Jr. is a straight-A student in 11th grade in Washington, D.C. He is an eighth generation great grandson of David Drake.

Performance by The DR’s Laboratory


Hear Me Now

The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina 

On View: August 26, 2023 — January 7, 2024

View Exhibition


Free to Speak is generously supported by the U-M Inclusive History Project, U-M Arts Initiative Arts & Resistance Theme Semester Fund, the Americana Foundation, Michigan Humanities, the Chipstone Foundation, U-M Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, U-M Department of History, and U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. 

Hear Me Now is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation.

Lead support for UMMA's presentation of Hear Me Now is provided by Michigan Engineering, the U-M Office of the Provost, the U-M Office of the President, the Americana Foundation, the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the U-M Inclusive History Project, and Michigan Humanities. Additional generous support is provided by the U-M History Department, Larry and Brenda Thompson and Melissa Kaish and Jonathan Dorfman.

UMMA - Feel Free. New Look. New Website. New Experience. Coming January 2024.

Feel Informed.

Sign up for updates.