Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama, USA) has recently published an online smartguide to its current exhibition “Black Like Who? Exploring Race and Representation” (July 11 – November 1, 2015). The exhibition features 28 works from the Museum’s permanent collection, and selected loans, brought together to consider how artistic representations of African-Americans and aspects of black cultural life have been influenced at pivotal historical moments by specific socio-political, cultural, and aesthetic interests, as well as the subjectivities of individual artists.
The assembled works by 19 artists are arranged into five thematic sections covering the period from the early 19th century, when the brutalities of enslavement and ‘Jim Crow’ restricted black self-representation, through to more modern 20th and 21st century portraiture of black subjects by African-American and white artists from Birmingham and other locations in Alabama. These works are placed alongside notable artworks and commentaries by internationally renowned African-American artists and scholars to contextualise changing attitudes to ‘race’ in the USA more broadly.
Five thematic sections:
Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Historical Representations in the South and Beyond – which reflects on the dearth of non-caricatured visual representations of African-American lives and experiences in early USA fine arts, and presents examples of sentimentalised stereotypes from the 19th century by white artists such as William Gilbert Gaul (1855-1919).
Brown Skin Ladies: Picturing the Black Woman – featuring (among other works) Woman in Green Coat (1946) by Alabama-based artist Betty Grisham, and Seated Figure (2003) by African-American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett.
Body and Soul: Rhythmic Representations – exploring achievements in music by African-Americans throughout history, and the visual representation of different musical genres and cultures on canvas. Artwork by the German-American abstractionist Winold Reiss features in this section, as an illustrator who was famously commissioned (alongside Aaron Douglas) by Alain Locke to produce designs for the influential anthology of Harlem Renaissance era poems and essays Locke edited – The New Negro (1925).
From Mammy and Mose to Madison Avenue: Advertising and the Black Image – showing representations of stereotypical characters such as “Aunt Jemima” alongside commentary reflecting how contemporary black artists, such as Betye Saar and Renee Cox, have subverted and re-imagined those overtly caricatured media images in the post-modern era.
Black Like Me: African-American Portraits – a section which takes its title from journalist John Howard Griffin’s controversial memoir, Black Like Me (1961), for which he darkened his skin in order to recount experiences of discrimination throughout the ‘Jim Crow’ South. The featured works are presented in response to a statement by the African-American abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) that:
“[N]egroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.”
Source: “A Tribute to the Negro” (1849) – an essay by Frederick Douglass, published in the abolitionist newspaper, The North Star*
Examples shown to contest the quote include: Portrait of Dr. George Washington Carver, 1864-1943 (1937), by Arthur Leroy Bairnsfather; and a portrait of the African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937 (1900), by his friend and fellow artist Thomas Eakins.
Structure of the smartguide
The online smartguide to the exhibition features :
- A welcome message and introductions from Curator of American Art, Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, and Curatorial Fellow for African-American Art, Kelli Morgan.
- An overview of the five thematic sections, each comprising selected high-resolution images of artworks featured in the exhibition, audio commentaries from the curators, and additional reflective contributions from collectors and academics – including Dr. Henry Panion, III, Professor of Music, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
- Web links to the following three recently filmed documentaries about contemporary issues of race and racism in the USA – sourced from the New York Times OpDocs Video Channel. These relate the exhibition’s historical themes to present-day narratives on identity, difference and citizenship: ‘A Conversation With My Black Son,’ New York Times OpDocs, March 17, 2015 ‘A Conversation About Growing Up Black,’ New York Times OpDocs, May 7, 2015; ‘A Conversation With White People on Race,’ New York Times OpDocs, July 1, 2015.
It would have been interesting to see more in-depth critical contributions from internationally renowned African-American artists and scholars of black visual cultures from the wider African diasporas detailed alongside these snippets from the curators’ interpretation texts, so that the balance of the content was weighted towards scholarly historical and aesthetic discourses on blackness in American art by a plurality of African-Americans and Diasporans themselves. It is right that Birmingham Museum of Art should begin with a reflexive critique of its own holdings, and profile the history of local artists and their subjects. However, the conversation should extend further and deeper than local histories and geographies to show how overarching issues about race, identity, image-making, representation, social inclusion and the politics of art are reflected and addressed nationally and internationally.
In addition, I would have welcomed more detailed citations for the important quotes from Frederick Douglass and Alain Locke, as well as links to the biographies and wider portfolios of innovative conceptual artists and installationists like Betye Saar and Renee Cox (who are only briefly mentioned in the guide), so that audiences for this resource had opportunities to continue researching the many influential black actants’ contributions to art history, culture, politics and society.
Lastly, as this exhibition has successfully helped to raise the profile of contemporary African-American artists – such as the fine art photographer Sheila Pree Bright – it is unfortunate that images from more conceptual contemporary art projects like Pree Bright’s “Plastic Bodies” (2003) series, were not given greater prominence in the online guide to the exhibition. Importantly, Pree Bright’s “Plastic Bodies” project uses collections of Barbie dolls to pose searching questions and present counter-narratives about the intersected sociologies of race, gender, notions of beauty and body image.
Some of the additional sources of further information that I felt were lacking in the smartguide are listed below for those interested in pursuing these themes in more depth.
* The above-mentioned quote by Frederick Douglass is taken from his essay “A Tribute to the Negro” (1849), first published in the abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. For additional details about this text, please see: “Pictures in Progress: The Claims of Frederick Douglass, Photographically Considered” (pp. 131-180. Chapter 4 in: Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman, by Sean Ross Meehan (University of Missouri Press, 2008).
Further printed and online information sources:
America and the Black Body: Identity Politics in Print and Visual Culture, edited by Carol E. Henderson (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009)
Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima – a short film of the artist Betye Saar speaking about her celebrated artwork, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), a reconfiguration of mammy and Aunt Jemima stereotypes that critiques issues of race, representation, power and agency in the USA. [Duration = 5 minutes]
Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer (Temple University Press, 2014)
Imagining the Black Female Body: Reconciling Image in Print and Visual Culture, edited by Carol E. Henderson (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010)
Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, by Deborah Willis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002)
Renee Cox’s website: http://www.reneecox.org/
Sheila Pree Bright’s website: http://www.sheilapreebright.com/