A! Magazine for the Arts

Portrait by R. Robinson

Portrait by R. Robinson

William King Museum celebrates Black History Month

January 28, 2023

William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia, hosts “The History of African-American Visual Culture” exhibit from Feb. 23 through April 2 in celebration of Black History Month. The exhibit is in the United Company/LeGard Gallery.

“The conception of this exhibit came about as a way to celebrate Black History Month and carry those themes on through the beginning of April when the show closes. Though our exhibits focus on artists of all backgrounds, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the narratives that are often left out of history. A lot of museumgoers are aware of big-name contemporary Black artists from around the country, but the origins of the visual culture that their work is influenced by are lesser known,” says Emily Jordan, curator of the exhibit.

The exhibit consists of both local, more historical works as well as contemporary works from around the country. Many of these loans are from university collections such as East Tennessee State University, Hollins University, and Vanderbilt University. Any local pieces come from smaller organizations or private collectors and will be of historical artists or crafts persons who might not have considered themselves artists at the time.

The pieces are 2D representations of self-portraiture and portraiture, mostly paintings and photography. All of the pieces explore the self-fashioning of a group of people and how they represent themselves in visual form.

By the mid 19th century, the visual culture in America was riddled with white supremacy and racial caricatures degrading African Americans. Though they had little means of reaching widespread audiences, Black visual artists used the media technology at the time to promote Black leadership and respectability and to counteract the racism and hate that slavery established.

As photography was just becoming a popular medium in the country, many Black artists and activists chose to photograph successful members of their community — a realistic representation of a race that was being caricatured and stereotyped in popular printed media. These photographed portraits circulated throughout the country, promoting Black freedom and equality by showcasing the success and intellect of these individuals. The use of photography as a medium to abolish slavery and encourage equal rights was so profound that by the Civil War and Reconstruction years even white photographers were capturing the truth of cruelty and racism that both free and enslaved Black Americans faced.

During the first century of photography’s invention and use around the world, the most photographed person in the 20th century was Frederick Douglass — perhaps one of the most famous abolitionists, writers and social activists in American history.

The exhibit also includes a documentary, “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” which will be shown during the exhibit.

“Award-winning filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris explores the way of self-fashioning through photography for Black Americans from slavery to the present. During the Civil War era, Black Americans (freed or enslaved) were grossly misrepresented in the media. They were depicted with animalistic stereotypes, blackface, minstrels and many other racist images. As a result, Black photographers emerged at a time when photography was barely established in order to represent themselves in a true and humanized manner. These images would often depict professional and skilled Black Americans, such as doctors, musicians, writers and images of family to counteract the popular racist media images at the time. This idea of self-fashioning through portraiture goes along with the art throughout the rest of the exhibit.

“I hope that after viewing this exhibit, visitors will walk away having learned about this aspect of Black history and be able to appreciate the power of visual culture.

“For potential visitors, I would let them know that this exhibit explores very dark themes from our country’s history that may cause some discomfort. For the documentary especially, some images may not be suitable for young or sensitive viewers,” Jordan says.

William King Museum of Art is open seven days a week: Monday through Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. Admission to the museum is free. For information on exhibitions or events at William King Museum of Art visit williamkingmuseum.org or call 276-628-5005.