“Mythmakers,” an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art this fall that juxtaposed works by Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, contextualized the social attitudes of these artists — especially those of Remington — many of whom would today be seen as offensive.
A sort of follow-up exhibit centered on Homer opened in late November, but before we could publish this review of “Freedom, A Fable,” the museum closed on Dec. 9, when COVID-19 cases were increasing. The museum reopened on March 25 and the “Freedom” exhibition will remain on view until May 2.
“Freedom” draws from the museum’s collections to take a closer look at one aspect of Homer’s work: the illustrations he produced for Harper’s Weekly while enlisted in a Union Army regiment during civil war. The tiny exhibit – which occupies a single small gallery – combines portraits of African Americans from Homer magazine with works by contemporary black artists Kara Walker, Daniel Minter and Glenn Ligon, as well as works by Red Grooms and Andy Warhol.
Don’t let its size fool you; “Freedom” packs a powerful and empowering punch. Homer has turned his artistic attention to the African-American experience throughout his career, and for good reason. As the child of abolitionists, he was inculcated early on in the inherent injustice of slavery. In an 1880 New York Times review, Homer was praised for boldly recognizing the intrinsic artistic value of the black subject through his work.
Paintings such as “Near Andersonville” and “Visit from the Old Mistress” had already depicted strong black women with unabashed sensitivity and dignity, something groundbreaking for the time. “Dressing for Carnival” transcended genre painting by monumentalizing the figures within the frame.
So what about Harper’s Weekly illustrations, which rely on disparaging images of black figures? In “Songs of the War”, Homer covers the pages with visual representations of popular tunes such as “Glory Hallelujah”. All but one feature only white people.
The final quadrant, “Dixie”, places a blank-eyed, tattered-clothed black man atop a barrel (presumably liquor) marked “Contraband”. In another, “A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac”, minstrel-like black men dance around a fire, entertaining watching Union soldiers in various states of attention, from puzzled to bored. . Was Homer a hidden racist?
The wall texts refer to the work of historians Peter H. Wood and Karen CC Dalton, who have offered alternative readings of these images. “Contraband” in the first work may be a commentary on the fundamental illegitimacy of the enslavement and trade in black human lives, the word referring to the man rather than the contents of the barrel. An IOU between two players in “Bivouac Fire,” they suggested, might actually be a wake-up call, expressing the debt white people owe African Americans “for centuries of forced labor.”
But any comfort we might find in these interpretations evaporates at the sight of the key to the exhibit: a video of three community representatives talking about these images.
The problem begins with the narrator, says activist, educator, performer and poet Abdul Ali (currently artist-in-residence at Speedwell Gallery on Forest Avenue). “It’s a white man telling the story… You have to unlearn everything… We won’t move forward if we keep telling the same story.” We must, he argues, also look at history with other eyes, that of the oppressed.
There’s also a good chance that any coded messages Homer might have communicated were lost to the intended recipients. It would have been just as easy—I dare say probable—if Harper’s readers had interpreted the IOU as a player-to-player debt and nothing more. The word “smuggling” can be read just as easily as an indictment against black people engaging in a variety of immoral or criminal behavior.
Artist Daniel Minter explains that images like these, which denigrate rather than elevate and benefit everyone, are essentially weaponized. “These images teach other people to see,” he says. Minter also speaks poignantly of the stress we feel watching images of people in situations they don’t belong in and which are clearly uncomfortable, even dangerous, for them.
Marcelle Medford, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Bates College, explains how depictions of African Americans as lazy, dancing, hunched up — the negative associations are endless — imply that black people were weak and “just waiting for the soldiers of the Union come and release them.”
This denies the reality, proven by WEB DuBois, she says, “that black people have always been architects in the fight for [their] freedom and liberation”. For example, black women were military spies during the Civil War, communicating in a code that often parodied the behaviors white people expected of them, thus weaponizing the stereotypes forced upon them to fight back.
Kara Walker’s work has always done something similar. Using cut-out silhouettes as a medium and exaggerating so-called “black” physical features, she provocatively comments on the legacy of slavery. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, which the stereotype does,” she explained. The show actually takes its title from a pop-up book created by Walker, which is also on display.
Walker’s “Occupation of Alexandria” challenges the white view of this event. When Virginia seceded in 1861, federal troops poured in, converting public buildings into hospitals for wounded soldiers and turning the city into an ammunition and supply center. During the four years of occupation, many African Americans who arrived there with the hope of working died of malnutrition, smallpox and typhoid. The city’s thriving free black communities were decimated.
At the bottom right of a triumphant visual account of the occupation from Harper’s Illustrated Civil War History, Walker inserts a pair of silhouettes. Although they make slanderous clichés about “blacks” – big lips, tribal dress, gay chests – one raises a defiant fist. The sardonic stereotype adds a contradictory African American vision to the scene, turning it into a work of anger, power and protest.
Glenn Ligon’s work borrows a phrase – “I don’t always feel colorful” – from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How does it feel to be colorful me”, which he repeats in stenciled letters all over the surface. From top to bottom, the words first break unnaturally from line to line, then become increasingly obscured by erasing or smudging. We could witness the virtual disintegration of the idea of race or the systematic white sublimation of Hurston’s more humanistic and colorblind vision.
Daniel Minter’s multimedia works, he explains in the video, replace racist imagery rather than combat it, centering the work on darkness and then layering it with “complexity, beauty, symbolism.” “A Distant Holla, Currency Exchange” features a black Union soldier on the left and a rowed corn figure in African attire on the right, at the bottom of which is a fish swimming in the water. The positioning suggests that the figure on the right is from the east (Africa) and the figure on the left (west) is African American. Between them is the painful Middle Passage and its aftermath.
“Holla” is filled with enigmatic symbols and meanings. There are images of fish, wheat, okra, a seed pod – all possible references to forms of money – as well as labor (wrench, hammer, axe). There are allusions to black hair (combs), adoption of the Christian faith, agriculture, and more inscrutable elements.
For example, amulets hung on the buttons of the uniform recall the tradition of West African coats decorated with talismans. One shows a pregnant black woman who appears to have had a miscarriage. Or maybe the white void in her womb represents something more sinister (impregnation by her white slaver?), while the black sphere on the ground is the offspring of this unholy union.
Are the man in the red cap in the woods or the black woman in the water fleeing slavery? This lyrical work telegraphs a much more complex and textured story than what we are taught in school.
Medford forcefully dissects Grooms’ portrait of Confederate General Braxton Bragg better than I ever could. Warhol’s play – an appropriate image of the Birmingham race riots – at this point feels familiar and documentary and, therefore, less powerful (its blurriness almost obscures who is beaten and who gets the beating). Especially after the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, that’s exactly what museums should be doing: educating, filling historical voids, re-contextualizing, sparking curiosity and conversation. Congratulations to the PMA.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]