East City Art Reviews: Portraits of Who We Are

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on February 21, 2018

A portrait is an old art form that records the likeness or appearance of the individual who is portrayed. But portraits have always been more than just a record. They have been used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning and other qualities of the subject depicted. Portraits of Who We Are, on view at the David C. Driskell Center through May 18, offers a view into the past, present and future of portraits by and of African American artists.

The exhibit is a rare opportunity to see historical African American depictions of “self” in a culture that often suppressed or discouraged African American self-representation, particularly in a professional context. This unique collection of works from the Driskell Center’s collection, as well as works loaned from other institutions, will not be traveling to other museum and gallery venues.

Hayden, Palmer (1890–1973)
The Janitor Who Paints, c. 1930
Oil on canvas
39.25” x 32.75”
Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art
Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

This exhibition includes works by self-reflective and self-confident black artists who seem intent on defining themselves–almost in an act of defiance–to be remembered, in an age of racial prejudice[1]. The portraits and figures are in a variety of styles and materials and often focus on social commentary.  For example, Palmer Hayden’s “protest painting” of 1930, The Janitor Who Paints, explores the irony of the role menial work played in supporting the professional artistic careers of African Americans.

Cole, Willie (b. 1955)
Double-You-See, 2017
Sandblasted glass and inkjet print on
wooden shelf
13” x 10” x 0.75”
Loan courtesy of the artist and Maus
Contemporary, Birmingham, Alabama
© Willie Cole, 2017
Photography by Greg Staley, 2017

Willie Cole’s Double-You-See (2017) is a more contemporary photomontage of with the back of an iron imprint laid on top of his face.  The imprint may be read by the viewer as a boat, and thus possibly be a reference to slave ships. It can also represent African scarification rituals. In those places where the industrial markings of the iron line up to form patterns on the photographed face, the result looks like cultural scaring. The iron itself can be a metaphor for domestic rituals associated with housework and acts of servitude.

Scott, Sheldon (b. 1976)
Sweet Boy, 2013
Color photography on archival paper
38” x 26”
Loan courtesy of Sheldon Scott and
© Sheldon Scott
Photography by Joshua Cogan

Sheldon Scott’s Sweet Boy (2013) in which he photographically depicts his face immersed in sugar, draws from the metaphors related to slave labor on sugar plantations, the derogatory term “boy,” and the coming of age rituals among young African men such as the South African Xhosa who cover their faces and bodies with white clay in a rite called Ulwaluko  marking the transition from boyhood to adulthood.[2] Scott seems to be asking, “How does a boy become a man in a cultural environment of prejudice?”

Willis, Deborah (b. 1948)
Willis Thomas, Hank (b. 1976)
Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008
Digital C-Print
13” x 30”
Loan and image courtesy of Hank Willis
Thomas and Deborah Willis
© Hank Willis Thomas and Deborah Willis

The intimate portrait of Deborah Willis called Sometimes I see Myself In You (2008) attests to the universal experience of motherhood and the idea around transference of biological genetic traits. The work however also alludes to the way culture and ideas can be transferred. The photograph shows three faces. The face to the far right is that of her son, Hank Willis Thomas. The face in the middle is half her face and half his and the face, and on the right is Willis’ face.   Dorit Yaron, Deputy Director of the Driskell Center, related an incident told to her by Willis. When Willis was pregnant and studying for her MFA at the Pratt Institute in New York, her professor told her that she was “taking the space of a good man” by remaining in the program. This insult demanded a response from Willis and she proceeded to make a triptych in 2009, which she called: I Made Space for a Good Man. Her son Hank Willis Thomas became an artist in his own right.[3]

Flemister, Frederick C. (1917–1976)
Man with a Brush, c. 1940
Oil on canvas
25.75” x 20.75”
Loan and image courtesy of Clark Atlanta University Art Collection

The artists in this exhibition portrayed themselves within specific landscapes, which indicated who they were and to what they are connected.  Most of the artists who depict themselves as working artists in their self-portraits worked in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. They openly show the instruments of their profession and the things they used to make their paintings, photographs, and drawings. These include Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) William H. Johnson (1901-1970), Frederick C. Flemister (1917-1976), John Wilson (1922-1915), and Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). For example, Loïs Mailou Jones who painted her self-portrait in the style of Paul Cezanne and inserted herself into a particular setting with two African statuary figures, claims her place in history as an African American artist while contemplating her own racial identity in relationship to the objects around her.

The exhibit also exposes an interesting historical timeline, which starts with Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1910 and ends with such works as Willie Cole’s Double-You-See of 2017. As an African American artist living in self-imposed exile in Paris, Tanner’s Self-Portrait (1910) is a simple sketch but the marks on the paper attest to Tanner’s training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he studied with, and was a friend of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) who painted him in a sensitive and beautiful portrait. Tanner’s most famous painting, The Banjo Lesson, 1894 can be found in every edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  It shows a grandfather teaching his grandson how to play the banjo in a rustic African American domestic setting that echoes Realist artist Gustave Courbet’s representations of the poor and the marginalized in mid-nineteenth century France.  What Tanner’s work reveals, is not only an African American domestic scene, but also the educated and informed artistic training that Tanner himself, the grandson of a freed slave, was able to obtain even as Jim Crow Laws mandated segregation in the American South and influenced prejudiced stances in industrial northern cities like Philadelphia between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.[4] Yet, there is nothing saccharine about Tanner’s works of this kind. His religious paintings, which made him successful in Paris, are innovative and powerful expressions of common subjects such as his Annunciation (1898).

“What happens”, David Driskell asks, “when African American artists look at themselves in a plain and curious way?… Self-defining images reveal something very special about the creator of the image itself.”[5] The exhibition of portraits, currently on view at the David C. Driskell center, brings together a unique body of work that may initiate an intimate discussion on African American identity and a collective perception of the cultural and historical context of African Americans as artists from about 1910 to 2017.

[1] Cheryl Finley, “Me, Myself I, “ in Portraits of Who We Are, Exhibition Catalogue, February 1 – May 18, 2018, David C. Driskell Center At the University of Maryland, College Park, pg.15

2 http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-48/xhosa-circumcision-ritual-south-africa-its-hard-to-be-a-man/


4 https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law

5 David C. Driskell, Forward, Portraits of Who We Are,, Exhibition Catalogue, February 1 – May 18, 2018, David  C. Driskell Center At the University of Maryland, College Park,  p. 8

Portraits of Who We Are is on view February 1–May 18 at the David C. Driskell Center located at 1214 Cole Student Activity Building University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.  For more information, visit the Center’s website at www.driskellcenter.umd.edu