FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 22, 2009
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African American Stereotypes and Self-Expression Studied in New Exhibit
Virginia Historical Society Explores Images of Blacks Throughout Commonwealth’s History
Richmond, VA—When you think about pictures, portraits, drawings, or paintings of African Americans, have you ever thought about what those depictions convey about the subjects, or about the race as a whole? Can you tell the difference between an image of an African American created by a white person or a black person? Does the artist seem sympathetic, neutral, or demeaning toward the African American(s) depicted?
In The African American Image in Virginia, an exhibition opening at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) on February 1, various media are explored to show how images of blacks have changed throughout Virginia’s history. The nearly fifty images on display–from books, sheet music, newspapers, broadsides, photographs, and works of art—show visitors the way whites and blacks have depicted African Americans.
"This exhibition is about identity," said Dr. Lauranett Lee, VHS curator of African American history. "The images show a changing state and nation. As America has grown over four centuries, the idea of how African Americans present themselves and how they are presented by others has changed and evolved."
Most of the images displayed in the exhibition are by white artists and, with a single exception, men. During the 1700 and 1800s, drawings of individual African Americans tended to be realistic, but when blacks were not depicted as individuals but as generalized representatives, white artists often descended into caricature with demeaning stereotype features ascribed by popular white prejudices.
The African American Image in Virginia also explores the middle ground between portraiture and caricature. Sometimes called "Negro studies," these images by whites had a specific person as the subject, but the individual was unnamed. They were meant to represent a "type" of character. Often these works were sold as souvenirs to northerners, to whom blacks were an exotic feature of southern society, like magnolias or palmettos.
African Americans in Virginia were better able to express themselves artistically after slavery ended. Black churches gained autonomy; black artists received funding and had exhibitions; and black colleges created art departments. Because it was inexpensive photography became a particularly important means of self-representation and community documentation. A photograph of Leonie Holmes in the exhibition illustrates the sense of personal pride and social responsibility blacks felt to "uplift the race" and show upward mobility through education.
"This exhibition is intended to be thought-provoking," said Lee. "We want to help visitors understand what it is that they are seeing and what it means. We want visitors to understand the world in which the image was created, the era and attitudes of that time. Some of the images are degrading, but it is not cruel to show these ugly episodes of our past; if we hide them, we don’t learn. And then how can we grow?"
The African American Image in Virginia will be on display at the Society through December 30, 2009. An online version of the exhibition will showcase over twenty images featured in the physical one and will remain on the VHS website indefinitely. Curator Lauranett Lee will give a gallery walk on Wednesday, February 11 at noon.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), located within walking distance of the VHS, is also presenting an African American exhibition during Black History Month. The art exhibition, on display from February 5 to May 3 at VMFA, focuses on African American work from the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s to the Postmodern experimentation of the late 1990s.
Labor and Leisure: Works by African-American Artists from the Permanent Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will explore the polarities of daily life for American blacks in a variety of media. Included will be art by James VanDerZee (1886–1983), Leslie Garland Bolling (1898–1955), Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Charles White (1918–1979), Lorna Simpson (born 1960) and Willie Cole (born 1955). For more information about Labor and Leisure, visit www.vmfa.museum.
"Visitors are fortunate that the VHS and VMFA exhibitions are on display at the same time and are so close," Lee said. "It is important to get different perspectives, and the more opportunities we have to explore these powerful African American images, the more we will understand about our past."
The Virginia Historical Society is located at 428 N. Boulevard. The Story of Virginia, An American Experience, a 10,000-square-foot exhibition with more than a thousand objects covering all of Virginia history from prehistoric
times to the present is featured in the Robins Center for Virginia History. Hours: Monday–Saturday 10 am–5 pm
and Sunday 1 pm–5p m (Museum Galleries and Shop only). Admission: $5/adults, $4/seniors 55+ ($2/Tuesdays–galleries
only), $3/children and students, free/members. Admission to the galleries is free on Sundays. For group tour
information, call (804) 342-9652. For more information, please call (804) 358-4901 or visit www.vahistorical.org.