Meditations on Viewership
Defying the Shadow, on view at the RISD Museum until December 18, presents the notion of anti-portraiture as an act of resisting the white supremacy of the traditional gaze, as well as the need to be understood, categorized, or labelled. This curatorial concept is thoroughly laid out for visitors in the 14th issue of Manual, subtitled “Shadows.” The show, curated by Anita N. Bateman, Ph.D., Former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, spans from the Fain Gallery on the 4th floor through the Prints, Drawings and Photographs rooms and brings together about 77 pieces, including a wall of polaroids, paintings, prints, and drawings. The works date from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day.
The work challenges the historical narrative of oppression, othering, and domination of Black bodies and explores the feeling of being constantly watched and under the threat of violence and persecution for simply existing in the world while Black. We are asked to consider the “defiant body” as a versatile form, malleable and adaptable to the perpetual challenges of authoritarianism in forcing Blackness to overcome the constant, unrelenting violence of living.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Lost Portrait of the 18th Marquess, 2018, a secretive portrait of a figure half hidden within the bushes, plays with the poetics of privacy. This life-size rendering fits into Odutola’s canon of sumptuous portraiture, exploring the figure absorbed and secured into plant material, betraying publicness, owning their narrative. A marquess is a noble ruler of a borderland. This Marquess rules the border of public and private; luxurious in its drama and use of shadow, it resists the visitor’s gaze, fading in plain sight.
On the far wall of the exhibition’s final room is The Means to an End … A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, 1995, by Kara Walker. This silhouette etching with aquatint is a discursive piece of massive proportions. Walker’s ability to materialize generational trauma is a potent reminder of the relentless everydayness of this master/slave, oppressor/victim power imbalance that remains and continues to persist in the present. Walker subverts the mode of Victorian portraiture to place Blackness back into the narrative, forcing the gaze to surrender.
Glenn Ligon’s Untitled, from the portfolio In the Year Three, 2003, incorporates writing into his photomicrograph of a cross-section of paint. The quotation “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation” posits that history does not follow a “wonderful arc” but rather a narrowing, hollow darkness that infinitely swallows. Ligon presents a collective portrait without apology here; there is liberation in casting more darkness on the shadow.
Kerry James Marshall too, in his etchings Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, both 2010, presents an unequivocal blackness, a subtle emergence from the shadow, subverting this portrayal of Black bodies as monstrosities into authentic, unflinching nude portraits, reclaiming the shadow as a refuge.
Returning to the light, there is unmistakable hardship and glory in Under the blood red sky, 2007, by Faith Ringgold, a print from a larger series by the prominent civil rights and gender equality activist. Largely symbolizing Ringgold’s move from Harlem to Englewood, NJ, the text in the border recounts the journey of two runaway slaves migrating north through the Underground Railroad. But the whiteness of the home and the underlying blood red in everything in tandem with the words tell a story of resilience through generational trauma.
Lastly, it is crucial to mention the inclusion of both professional and found, vernacular photos in Defying the Shadow. In the 1850s, cartes-de-visites (Polaroid-sized calling cards) were in vogue and used by Sojourner Truth to curate and own her image as a person and an abolitionist. On each card was inscribed, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” meaning she sells her likeness to support herself as a freedwoman. Her commissioning, styling, and selling of these portraits are the most radical declarations of resistance and self-ownership in the show, fervently presenting what defying the shadow really stands for. This stance is boosted by the works of Roy DeCarava, Carrie Mae Weems, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks, Black photographers who confirmed their being and agency in the White world through the image and demanded a new form of looking. In contrast to these examples, a wall of found photos from 1920-1970 develops both the mundane everyday and the joyful moments of Black life. Removed from their contexts, each carries a rich personal value through various stages of discoloration.
Ultimately, the curation of this exhibition comes together as a significant and thoughtful meditation on viewership, ways of seeing, and resistance to definition. It also confronts the predominantly White visitors with an unwavering declaration of independence and ownership without straying from the lyrical movement between light and darkness. We are left with questions about Black erasure in the American museum, uncertain histories, and reparative futures.
Maxwell Fertik is hopelessly dependent on oatmeal.