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The African American Image in Virginia

February 1 - December 30, 2009


When you think about all the pictures, portraits, drawings, or paintings of African Americans you have seen, 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 that opened at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) on February 1, 2009, 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 grew over four centuries, the idea of how we present ourselves and how we are presented by others has changed and evolved, just as it has for African Americans."

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 exhibit 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 Virginia Historical Society through December 30, 2009.  An online version of the exhibition showcases over twenty images featured in the physical exhibit and will remain on the VHS website indefinitely. 

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), located within walking distance of the VHS, is also presenting an African American exhibit during Black History Month.  The art exhibition, on display from February 4 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. 

"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."


(above: J. Gari Melchers (1860-1932), Going to Camp Meeting, Early 20th century, Watercolor. Lora Robins Collection of Virginia Art, Virginia Historical Society)

Gari Melchers was a northern artist who moved to Falmouth, Virginia, late in life and began painting "negro studies." Spiritual life has been especially important to African Americans not only because slavery and inequality restricted social and political life, but also because, after emancipation, churches were the primary instruments of autonomous black culture and community. Congregations with or without church buildings held outdoor camp meetings as places for salvation and bonding with other people of God. Sometimes people traveled for miles, even overnight, to attend a camp meeting and hear good preaching.


(above: Allen Carter Redwood (1834-1922), The Scarecrow, Late 19th century, Oil on canvas. Lora Robins Collection of Virginia Art, Virginia Historical Society)

We do not know if the African Americans in The Scarecrow are sharecroppers or just poor farmers with a plot of their own, but the image evokes a hard-scrabble way of life little different than before the Civil War. Even so, these are free men and women. The scarecrow itself is but a dead crow on a pole. While the scarecrow may have protected the produce of the fields from living birds, the dead crow might well have reminded white viewers of the Jim Crow laws that would keep many of the liberated African Americans in their menial position as field workers.


(above: Tom Molineaux, Hand-colored etched plate, 1812. Virginia Historical Society)

Enslaved on a Virginia plantation, Tom Molineaux (1784-1818) was trained as a boxer by his father. After beating his opponents in a series of contests, Molineaux was granted his freedom.  He moved to New York, then England where he trained with Bill Richmond, another former Virginia slave.  Molineaux beat Jack Burrows, then challenged Tom Cribb for the English title. They fought in December 1810. Molineaux lost in the 35th round. Cribb also beat him in a rematch in September 1811. Small ceramic figurines of these early boxers are among the first sports memorabilia.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

and biographical information on artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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