by Jendella Benson Deciding that it is never too early to take the task of cultural reproduction seriously (see David Osa Amadasun’s article, “‘Black people don’t go to galleries’ – The reproduction of taste and cultural values”), I took my fourteen month old son to the National Portrait Gallery one brisk November afternoon. The exhibition […]
This post on Media Diversified echoes some recent discussion about the enduring perception that museums are not meant for people of color, who have been historically unwelcome and underrepresented in their collections.
I remember my experience attending museums as black child growing up in post-de-Segregation era Washington, DC differently. Maybe it was a Chocolate City thang, maybe it was that both my parents had advanced degrees, maybe it was that museums were being pressured to abandon exclusionary practices both official and de facto that a decade earlier would have certainly made the climate different, but as a frequent museum-goer I felt that those spaces belonged to me. Moreover, I felt just at home at the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery as I did at the National Museum of African Art (in its previous incarnation at the Frederick Douglass House before its move to the Mall).
Fortunately, I only learned later that most people like me perceived museums as antithetical to them and it is a shame that this belief persists. Was my sense of entitlement to the works of art that I saw regardless of whether they were by El Greco, an Aztec, a French Impressionist, an African, or by Bearden, due to whatever unique thing that prompted me to become an art historian or was it because an open door policy works?
Having spent several summers in Accra, I was delighted to learn about the incredible photographer, James Barnor, who operated the Ever Young studio in Jamestown. Autograph mounted an exhibition of his work: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/james-barnor-ever-young and an accompanying monograph has been published of his work. He has visited the US for the first time and spoke at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The Chinese-American star, Anna May Wong, regularly appeared in films in roles that were non-Asian but always racialized. I am currently obsessed with how often imagery linked her with blackness, as in this Paramount Studio photograph by Eugene Robert Richee:
Thinking about Benton’s relationship to Hollywood and parallels with my research on Carl Van Vechten revealed an interesting thread via the director King Vidor. Benton went to Hollywood in 1937 on assignment for LIFE magazine. Van Vechten had gone a decade earlier in 1927 to write a series of articles for Vanity Fair. Both of them found Hollywoodland fascinating and at times repulsive.
Van Vechten helped to catalyze the production of all-black cast musicals in the late 1920s. His infamous 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, was considered for adaptation but this never came to pass. Talks with Vidor eventually led to his making the 1929 film, Hallelujah!, one of the first all-black cast feature films. Vidor admired Benton’s work and later purchased one of his paintings, The Negro and Alligator (1927) in the 1940s.
All three held complex views of African Americans that ranged from egregious stereotype to genuine admiration and empathy. All, of course, were the product of their times where the black vogue and jazz craze coexisted with the second heyday of the Klan, lynchings, and race riots. (Doesn’t sound much different from 2015, does it!?)
“American Epics” is a great exhibition and I had the chance to look at my research from a new angle. Win-win!