All Too Human, Victorian Swag in Tow
Black Chronicles II Brings Images from Photography’s First Century Out of the Dark
If we close our eyes and recall images of black people from earlier centuries, what is imprinted in our memories? Do we see elegance, dignity, refinement, beauty, intelligence—all facets of human subjectivity—among those used to tell the story of history and art in the West?
Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, and W.E.B. DuBois in the 20th, grappled with the constructed role of race and the long established visual representation of black people prevalent throughout the culture. They deployed photography in strategies to re-define black humanity in both perception and reality.
The Black Chronicles II exhibition gives us excellent examples, from the other side of the Atlantic, of the kind of black representation that reformers such as Douglass and DuBois may have envisioned for their own photographic efforts at home.
Black Chronicles ll on view at The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, Hutchins Center African & African American Research, Harvard University, September 2–December 11, 2015, was organized by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy of Autograph ABP in London and produced in collaboration with the Hulton Archive, a London division of Getty Images. This travelling exhibit is currently on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA., January 29 - May 14, 2016.
Pictures in Black Chronicles II range from very small carte de visites (calling cards) to life-size portraits of 19th century blacks—entertainers, missionaries, common folk—encompassing startling photographic clarity and detail of features such as skin complexion, hair texture and skin folds. The photography also conveys a sense of the subjects’ personalities.
Included are people such as Kalulu (Ndugu M’Hai), the boy servant of explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a native of West Africa who was “given” to Queen Victoria as a slave and raised as her goddaughter, Boxer Peter “The Black Prince” Jackson in top hat and tails, serving what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls ‘Victorian swag”, and Eleanor Xiniwe, a member of an African Choir from South Africa photographed by the London Stereoscopic Company in the 1890s. Xiniwe’s visage and demure elegance recall beauties of the Renaissance whose profile and three quarter portraits often accentuate their aquiline noses and elongated necks.
Despite staging, costumes and props in some of these images intended to meet the negatively biased expectations of most white audiences during the 19th century, many of the works here supersede that intent, instead revealing the complexities of “blackness” in Victorian culture as well as the undeniable human subjectivity of figures shown.
The Black Chronicles ll photography exhibit results from the larger, three-year “Missing Chapter” archival research project led by Autograph ABP and funded by the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund. Its mission is to augment the photographic narratives of migration and cultural diversity in relation to Britain’s past in partnership with cultural institutions and other collaborators. The Missing Chapter initiates new research of materials in public and private collections to identify, contextualize and showcase a dedicated portfolio of photography dating back to the mid-19th century.
“A majority of the large-scale photographs in the exhibition are seen for the first time in over 125 years, reproduced from original 19th century glass plate negatives recently unearthed in the collection of the London Stereoscopic Company as a result of our [Autograph ABP] research collaboration with the Hulton Archive in London,” explained exhibition curator Renée Mussai in an interview with IRAAA.
Mussai added that “animating the past to imagine the future” is a concept and commitment that shapes the various program strands of The Missing Chapter. The project aims to bring the photographic archive out of the gallery/museum context and into direct engagement with various communities of interest, inspiring interactivity around historical content for a diverse and intergenerational audience, via participatory activities, innovative displays, and a range of educational resources.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and founder of the Cooper Gallery told IRAAA about the gallery’s partnership with Autograph ABP.
Gates recalled that through his partnership with Autograph ABP in London and discussions with curator Renée Mussai, he was encouraged to consider that if his enterprise at Harvard was serious about incorporating art into the overall historical research and scholarship of The Hutchins Center (as did Autograph ABP’s project in London), he would need a larger gallery space than the small art space then in the Hutchins Center. If the new space is on street level of the Center (which is at edge of the campus), it would be more conducive to public access and to making the center’s exhibitions and programs integral to the life of the broader community.
On one snowy Monday, Gates seized an opportunity to follow that advice. Noticing a storefront space adjacent to the existing Hutchins Center was available, he peered into the window of the empty space and saw its possibilities. Fortunes shined that same week when an old friend from Yale contacted Gates about wanting a ‘naming’ opportunity at Harvard. By Friday of the same week, the space had been secured as the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery and would be slated for architectural design by renowned, African-born, international architect David Adjaye who also designed Rivington Place in London which houses Autograph ABP and the Institute of International Visual Arts.
Gates also spoke about his interest in art during our interview, especially photography. He reminisced about student days at Yale, where he learned how to make 35 mm photographs and was introduced to the “zone system” and its importance for measuring light and ascertaining the correct “f-stop” on a 35 mm camera. This is key to capturing detail and texture of differing skin tones in one picture. It also conveys the nuances of facial characteristics of black subjects (which otherwise could be dulled or greyed out). Having studied with academic greats such as William Ferris Thompson at Yale, Gates went on to explain how this gifted lecturer, and others like him at the university, seamlessly integrated visual art and culture into the study of disciplines apart from art history during his undergraduate years.
The Cooper Gallery is a testament to the importance Gates now bestows on the role of art and visual culture in the vivid life of scholarship at Harvard’s Hutchins Center. Renée Mussai notes that she also has worked closely with Cooper Gallery director Vera Ingrid Grant on projects since 2009. As the only purpose-built campus gallery in the Ivy League dedicated exclusively to African and African American art, the Cooper Gallery represents the ideal site and scholarly context to introduce Black Chronicles ll to American audiences for the first time, says Mussai.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s "Frederick Douglass’s Camera Obscura: Representing the Antislave 'Clothed and in Their Own Form',” Critical Inquiry 42 (Autumn 2015) examines intersections between the writings and speeches of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass in the 19th century; Douglass’ metaphorical and literal uses of photography there; and DuBois’ recognition in the early 20th century of Douglass’ photographic model.
Gates’ scholarship here aligns perfectly with Black Chronicles II at Cooper Gallery. Many of the concepts and outcomes he identifies in Douglass’ and DuBois’ aesthetic and political intentions are found in the faces, stature and humanity of black subjects we see in the exhibition.
In his Critical Inquiry essay, Gates introduces readers to Douglass’ rhetorical and literary device, chiasmus— a repetitive oratory technique, something similar to rap today—which he utilizes to unmoor an argument or perception, literally turning it upside down. In the camera obscura, which represents an upside down image, Douglass finds a metaphor for his intellectual and political strategies as an abolitionist, and a literal device for using his own artfully constructed image in photographs to represent a different reality from the race constructs of slave holders and their allies. Recent scholarship acknowledges Douglass was the most photographed American, as well as the most photographed black man, of the 19th century. 1
Recognizing Douglass’ successful use of photography to realize reformist aims (for example in showing the broad variation of African American physical appearance), DuBois advocates the use of higher resolution photographic processes to ‘picture’ blackness in his 363 photographs of African American life at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and to represent the “New Negro” of the 1900s and ‘20s.
In our current Instagram and Tumblr world of millions of instantaneous images, it may be hard to imagine that images from another century can captivate 21st century audiences as did those in Black Chronicles but Mussai was very “inspired” by visitors’ responses to portraits in the London exhibition. One mother brought her five children to the exhibition multiple times. “She was encouraging her children to ‘verify’ their existence by looking at 19th century images, revealing to them the very important fact that black people have been in this country for centuries, have a long history here, and are represented with a certain grace and dignity,” says Mussai. “Our primary objective is to present new knowledge and offer different ways of seeing the black subject in Victorian Britain, and contribute to an on-going process of redressing persistent ‘absence’ within the historical record—highlighting the ‘archival lacunae’ that permeates the colonial and imperial dimension of many photographic collections across the globe.”
To accentuate identification and immersion in the imagery shown in Black Chronicles II, curators decided to install the pictures in ways that allow them to speak directly. “A curatorial decision was made early on in the project’s conceptualization to keep the installation free from extended captions – hence the exhibition carries very little descriptive or contextual information for individual images….Instead we wished to create a reflective and visually reverberating space for the portraits to initially speak to the viewers in their own, multiple ‘voices’ and collective registers, beyond the sitters’ personal stories and outside didactic explanatory panels so often used in museum displays,” says Mussai.
Excerpts from Stuart Hall’s unpublished keynote lecture, “Cultural Identity and the Photographic Archive” provide a contextual framework that allows audiences to consider and experience the exhibition within the historical complexities of being black in a 400 year historical swath. The late Stuart Hall was chairperson of Autograph ABP for more than 16 years.
“Hall poignantly evokes the colonial enterprise which quietly fuels many of the exhibition’s narrative strands, creating an intimate connection between the sitters in the photographs on display and Britain’s colonial and imperial history, its ‘umbilical cord’,” says Mussai. “His words also subtly point toward another key premise of the exhibition…the politics of historical omission and custodianship of the Archive, and how certain ‘stories’—visual or otherwise—become marginalized and left out of the wider historical narratives, and are perceived as ‘different’….”
Many of the threads running through Black Chronicles II, as well as contextual issues surrounding the making and dissemination of these images, extend to today’s tense race relations in the U.S and the U.K. Cooper Gallery director Vera Ingrid Grant says the images “offer significant challenges to our local, national and international visual archive, one that for hundreds of years, normalized systemic racial violence against African Americans. Here, and in unique exhibitions such as this, the juncture of scholarship and art powerfully intersect.”
This impact is as much visceral as cerebral — the resonance of one human, face-to-face with a long deceased other and experiencing their shared humanity.
Autograph ABP is a charitable art agency founded in 1988 specializing in contemporary and historical photography and moving image works that explore questions of cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. Based in a landmark building at Rivington Place, designed by architect David Adjaye in Shoreditch London, Autograph ABP curates exhibitions nationally and internationally, and publishes widely on photography and cultural politics.
1. John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, Celeste-Marie Bernier, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (epilogue), Kenneth B. Morris Jr (afterword), Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American, Liveright; 1st edition (November 2, 2015).