Marian Ruth Agree was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1922. The daughter of William and Dora Bailies and wife of Philip Agree, she was an artist who worked in metal sculpture, weaving, and painting.
Jewish, Agree was passionate about art, politics, and civil rights and those three causes often informed her sculpture. Those causes certainly merged, and merged powerfully, in the piece we acquired, 491.
The sculpture is a modern, not-so-subtle anti-slavery, pro-freedom statement. The tag “491” hanging from a hook through the subject’s neck references a slave tag.
According to historian and art appraiser, Dr. Lori Verderame, “Slave Tags or slave badges were issued to slave owners, to be worn by their slaves, in and around the seaport and prominent slave trade city of Charleston, South Carolina from the late 1700s to 1865.”
There were laws in place in the early 1800s which allowed slave owners to hire out their slaves. These laws were in place in southern cities including Mobile, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Savannah.
But, the only southern city that had a strict regulatory method for keeping track of these slaves was Charleston. One requirement, known only to slaves in Charleston, related to the use of slave tags.
Slave owners who wished to rent out the services of their slaves to others for a fee purchased the tags. Slaves were required to wear the slave tags as an identification marker. Fees for the tags, similar to a license, were set based on the abilities and skills of the slave. The registration fee or tax for slave tags brought income to the city of Charleston.
By law, the slave tag had to be worn at all times by the slave during the calendar year that the tag was issued.
Agree’s piece is especially important to us as gay men living in the current American political environment. It will be a constant reminder that no amount of oppression—no matter how small—is ever acceptable. It will remind us that freedom is a hard-won concept and we must resist every effort to reduce any individual’s freedom, by any group, by any degree.
MARIAN RUTH AGREE
(American b. Detroit, MI 1922 – d. Grand Blanc, MI 2015)
Cast metal, welded, on wood plinth, 1980
38 x 14 x 14 inches