Celebrating Resistance

The curator of a portrait exhibition discusses how African Americans used photography to resist stereotypes

(Noelle Theard)

Photography scholar Deborah Willis is the guest curator of the exhibition, "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits," at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through March 2. This is the inaugural exhibition of the recently established National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which will open its own building on the Mall in 2015.

Deborah, how did you come to be the guest curator for this exhibit?
The director of the museum, Lonnie Bunch, called me and asked if I would be interested in curating a show, mainly because he is familiar with my work in photography and my interest in telling stories through photographs. Basically, I am a curator of photography and a photographer. I've written a number of books on images of black culture.

The images range from a 1856 ambrotype of Frederick Douglass to mid-20th century images of performers such as Dorothy Dandridge to a 2004 image of musician Wynton Marsalis. What is the connecting theme in these 100 portraits of Africans?
The whole concept is from the National Portrait Gallery collection. I was initially interested in how the gallery collected and what stories they presented through their collection effort of black materials. As I began to look at the portraits, I started to see a connection of how the different subjects posed for the camera, of how they performed for their particular fields. They knew their significance and contributed in the arts and in politics and they understood public space. I imagined the spaces of the times and then made the connection of what stories people conveyed throughout the portraits. Each one conveyed their self-importance and understood what they wanted to contribute.

How did the quote by 19th-century activist Henry Highland Garnet become the inspiration for the title of the exhibit?
When I told Lonnie Bunch what I thought about the subjects in the portraits, their beauty and how they challenged the images that were circulating in the public at the time, the images celebrated their achievements and looked at dignity a different way, he said, "Oh, ‘Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! RESISTANCE!'" He understood exactly what I saw in the image and that the notion of resistance could appear in a photograph, as well as in text. I had considered a different title for the exhibition. When I talked about the images I viewed and what I experienced, Lonnie Bunch came up with the title by understanding and underscoring the experience of resistance through the outside view of black subjects.

May I ask the title you originally considered?
Beauty and the Sublime in African American Portraits.

In your essay, "Constructing an Ideal," which appears in the exhibition catalogue, you quote Frederick Douglass as saying that "poets, prophets, reformers, all are picture-makers and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements." How did African Americans utilize the new medium of photography to construct an ideal?
Black people in the late-19th century looked at photography as evidence of or a reflection of who they were. They preserved their image through this medium at a very important time because it was during and after slavery that some of these images were presented. Many African Americans thought it was important to preserve the images. They were a symbolic reference for them. Advertisements had black subjects as humorous or caricatures and black people wanted to use photographs to present themselves as they really were or as they imagined themselves or aspired to be.

How were the 19th-century images of activists such as Sojourner Truth or artist Edmonia Lewis used?
Sojourner Truth had nine different portraits made because she knew as she lectured around the country that her photographic image was presented. She wanted the dignity of her presence to be remembered as a speaker and an orator. With Edmonia Lewis, she dressed in a way that was part of the art movement. The notion of bohemia, women wearing pants, wearing a tassel, her figure, she understood the creed of women and artists and I think she wanted to present that in her photograph.

What role do you think that 20th century photographers such as Harlem's James VanDerZee and Washington, DC's Addison Scurlock played in reconstructing ideals?
They were not only reconstructing but constructing images that were modeled after their experiences, what it meant to have race pride, what it meant to be middle class, to see the beauty within their communities. They photographed the activities of the churches. They also understood beauty—beauty was an essential aspect—as well as the whole notion of communal pride. They were great studio photographers.

Communal portraits of pride are also discussed in the catalog. Can you provide us with one or two examples of communal portraits of pride?
Well, one is the Abysinnian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell Sr is standing outside. The church earned its mortgage within a five-year period. It shows a beautiful edifice of a church but also shows the large Sunday school community, so there was a sense of community pride through ownership. That was one photograph that looks at community pride. In terms of a personal experience, look at the photograph of Nat King Cole. There is an open sense as he walks on stage. The people in the audience are actors and entertainers also, but they are looking at him with pride as they applaud. That's another aspect of it too, not only with the black community but with the white subjects who are looking at him. They see his dignity, his manhood, his stylish dress.

Photographer Gordon Parks said that a photographer must know the relationship of a subject to his era. Are there a couple of images that demonstrate that concept especially well to you?
The photograph of Lorraine Hansberry [author of "A Raisin in the Sun"], where she's standing in her studio. She has an award she's received. We also see a blown up photograph someone has made of her, this whole notion of her positive experience of living in an environment of self-pride became an affirmation of what she contributed to literature, to the stage.


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