In my previous post, I wrote about some of the pieces that I saw when visiting the Reckoning exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art during our recent trip to Washington D.C. Today, I want to continue looking at some other pieces from these exhibits that stood out to me. Again, I cannot detail every piece, partly because that would be too impossible for me to do on this blog. However, there are certain works that caught my attention. While I cannot write about every piece, I suggest you go and visit the exhibits’ websites, linked above, to learn more about each exhibit.
I was able to see a few works by Kara Walker while in Washington, and in the previous post I wrote about Walker’s Restraint. Another work that I saw was no world, from the series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters. The print depicts the Middle Passage and near arrival in the Western hemisphere. The image shows the silhouettes of two individuals on the left, and they appear to be colonizers seeking success and fortune in the New World. A ship, carrying enslaved individuals is held aloft, above the waves, by two black hands rising from the water. Storm clouds cover the center of the print, and we see a Black woman underneath the surface of the water on the bottom right.
Taken together, no world depicts a myriad of things. Notably, the woman at the bottom right shows resistance against enslavement through the woman appearing to have thrown herself overboard instead of being taken captive for the profit of others. As well, though, the woman looks as if she is trying to break the surface of the water, as if it is glass, her arm poised as if striking. In this manner, she appears to be confined underneath the surface, unable to escape and speak for herself. This makes me think, as well, of the hull of the ship and the entirety of the Middle Passage for enslaved individuals. The ship, held aloft by black hands, brings to mind David Walker and others who point out that the United States and the colonies in the Western hemisphere, grew due to the labor of the enslaved.
The title, taken with the two men on the left and the rest of print, reinforce the fact that the colonies did not exist as a “New World” for all. Whites could be immigrants and work to make something of themselves, while massacring indigenous tribes and enslaving individuals. However, the enslaved in the hull of the ship had no such hope. Instead, for them, “this ‘New World’ is not a place of hope, but rather a destination of pain, struggle, and lifelong bondage.” This knowledge is partly why I see the woman at the bottom right in two different ways, as resisting enslavement by jumping overboard but also as being trapped under the water, unable to escape and be free.
When I saw Titus Kaphar’s Space to Forget in the Afro-Atlantics Histories exhibit, I didn’t immediately think about Walker’s no world. However, as I write this post, I see Kaphar’s piece in direct relation to Walker’s, specifically because they each detail different aspects of Black women’s experiences from enslavement through today. While Walker’s piece depicts enslavement and the Middle Passage, Kaphar’s Space to Forget draws attention to the invisible labor, in this case domestic labor, of Black women. The stark cutout of the white child, riding on the back of a Black domestic worker speaks volumes, especially in relation to works such as Ann Petry’s The Street or William Melvin Kelly’s “The Servant Problem.”
While the cutout of the white child on the Black woman’s back stands out, as I looked at Kaphar’s piece, much more stood out. Standing in front of the canvas, I noticed the semi-invisible outlines of the pillows on the couch, which seem to sort of blend into the couch itself. I noticed the Van-Goghesque style in the background, notably the table, mirror, and vase in the top right. Yet, most significantly, I noticed the unnamed Black woman’s right hand which holds a brush on the floor. Her hand is on the floor because she is on all fours, working while the white child rides her back. This, of course, reminds us of Nanny telling Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’ s Their Eyes Were Watching God, “De n****r woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” It also reminds us of Black women, from enslavement to today, working, not for themselves, but for the profit of whites.
Kaphar drives this point home, in part, with the way he depicts the Black woman’s right hand. We see the woman’s left hand in full, with a bracelet around her wrist. However, her right hand, even though it holds the brush, is merely an outline. The skin is invisible. We see right through it to the floor. She is like Dilsey in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. She exists for the family, not for herself. The family doesn’t know who she is apart from the work she does for them. This makes me recall Kevin Sacco’s Josephine where Sacco depicts Josephine, a Black domestic worker, in relation to him, as a white child, while eschewing any depiction of Josephine with her own life. Josephine’s life exists merely in relation to Sacco and his family’s existence.
There’s a lot more I could discuss, such as the multitude of portraits we saw at the National Portrait Gallery, including John Russwurm, Frederick Douglass, Ira Aldridge, Jessie Redmond Fauset, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and may more. Art is important, not matter the medium. Each of the pieces I saw impacted me in various ways, and that is what art does. It makes us think. It makes us reflect. It opens our minds. When we stand in front of a work of art, we do these things as we look at it. We engage with the work, the artist, society, and ourselves. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.