Diss Talk: Emma Veares on the Harlem Women

At a small exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery early this year entitled ‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’, a white printed caption on a black wall read: ‘There’s nothing like a photograph for reminding you about difference. There it is. It stares you ineradicably in the face’. In the exhibition’s selection of over forty photographs capturing snapshots of black lives and faces, the sheer size of some of the glass plate prints demanded that we face their near life-sized subjects eye to eye. Some were welcoming, and others hostile. What stared at me ‘ineradicably in the face’ was not so much their difference, but their familiarity. I was curious, not to see how vastly unlike mine their lives were, but to discover to what extent I might be able to understand their view of the world. How far was it possible to read stories from faces?

Camille Silvy, Sara Forbes Bonetta, captured aged five by slave raiders in West Africa, rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes, then presented as a ‘gift’ to Queen Victoria, 1862. Paul Frecker collection/The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography.

Portraiture can be an immensely powerful tool, for better or worse. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century saw the rise of the awful yet familiar image of non-distinguished black faces that were the result of minstrelsy, silhouettes, cartoons and cameos that littered artistic platforms – even children’s books – across America. ‘Blackface’, the theatrical makeup and mode of performance made popular during the nineteenth-century, performed racial stereotypes that must seem appalling to modern-day sensibilities. The carnivalesque portraits of black people that emerged from blackface created a homogenous, grossly generalised picture of black culture and community as a whole, and the hangover from this trend is still floating around in commercial culture today – Uncle Ben, originally a bow tie-wearing servant, is still used to sell rice, while Aunt Jemima remains the face of Chicagoan company Quaker Oat’s range of pancake mixes and syrups. The so-called ‘gollywog’ was only dropped from the packaging of Robertson’s marmalade in 2001.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929, oil on canvas, Chicago History Museum
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929. Chicago History Museum.

Black faces were being used as a means of effacing the people and stories behind them, which meant that any attempt at true, individualised portraiture (visual or otherwise) acted in protest to that aesthetic. The historical abuse of the image of black people left artists and writers with the task of finding new ways to ensure that their subjects, previously denied authentic visual or narrative space, were both properly noticed and effectively characterised. By repeatedly experimenting with different ways of faithfully representing black people, and simply by showing such extensive difference within the landscape of black faces that they created, portraitists would be upholding a political mission. To my delight, some of the first faces to properly realise this power belonged to women. Challenging a cultural era that saw only in black and white, they create a spectrum of differently shaded and compellingly animated black faces, whose very physiognomy suggests mobility, possibility and change. No face is reduced merely to its blackness.

Elise J. McDougald, 1925, by WInold Reiss
Winold Reiss, Elise J. McDougald, 1924. Smithsonian Museum.

Perhaps, in our current moment of ever-increasing humanitarian disasters, state violence, and persistent amnesia about the events and prehistories that brought us here, we would do well to re-examine the people and stories they put beautifully before our eyes.

Main image: Photographer unknown, portraits from The African Choir, 1891-93. London Stereoscopic Company. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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