This article is part of the Fine Arts and Exhibitions special section for the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.
Three groundbreaking black portraitists have exhibitions this fall at university art museums, two of which are Ivy League schools — historically white spaces with a past entangled with slavery.
The performances speak to the evolution of art institutions as they confront calls for diversification that began in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, when museums across the country were accused of racism and discriminatory practices.
Lauren Haynes, director of curatorial affairs and programs at the Queens Museum in New York and co-curator of one of the three university exhibitions, said she hopes they are part of a continuing effort by museums of all sizes to create exhibitions and collections that reflect their communities and the larger world in which they exist.
Yale’s history includes the use of enslaved African labor and faculty members who led the American eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The first nine presidents of Princeton University owned enslaved people, and in 1766 a slave auction was held on campus. Duke University’s history is intertwined with slavery, post-emancipation segregation, and white supremacy. In 2018, the university’s trustees voted to change the name of a building in honor of an early benefactor of the school, Julian Carr, who was a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, Mickalene Thomas/Portrait of an Unlikely Space, which opened Sept. 8 and runs through Jan. 7, 2024, focuses on a collection of small portraits—miniatures, daguerreotypes, silhouettes, and engravings— of pre-emancipation African-Americans, along with works by co-curator Mikalyn Thomas and other contemporary artists. Ms. Thomas, 52, earned an MFA from Yale University’s School of the Arts and lives and works in New York.
“When you think about Yale University and what it stands for, and that its museum is now exhibiting these images and portraits that were mostly hidden — it’s an unlikely place for that,” she said.
The portraits are a remarkable record of the lives of ordinary black Americans living between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, with the sitters often depicted dressed in their best clothes and looking straight at the viewer. Far more often, Ms. Thomas said, we are presented with images that speak to the trauma and slavery of black Americans, “rather than the quality of their lives and the excellence contained in those lives.”
The gallery’s acquisition in 2016 of a small, intricately detailed ivory portrait of Rose Prentice, a domestic worker, painted in her Sunday best, inspired the exhibition. It was also the first miniature of a black babysitter in the museum’s large collection of American miniatures. The portraits are arranged on walls, in cupboards and on furniture so that the viewer feels as if they have entered someone’s home, Ms Thomas said. The stories they tell — a woman sitting at a desk, another holding a banjo, Rose Prentice’s pearl earrings and a printed headscarf — are important, she said, “when you think about black families and how long we’ve been seen as invisible in mainstream America culture.
Renee Cox’s Ten Commandments, which opens at the Princeton University Art Museum’s new gallery in downtown Princeton, New Jersey, on November 18 and runs through January 28, 2024, is a mini-retrospective. Among the issues Ms. Cox’s work explores are black women and motherhood, sexism and gender fluidity, and the dehumanization and commodification of the black body.
But instead of portraying black people as victims, her work (largely photography) celebrates their strength, talent and beauty. It is also the first public showing of Ms. Cox’s earliest self-portrait, taken while she was a student studying photography at Syracuse University. The 63-year-old artist, born in Jamaica and raised in Scarsdale, New York, often photographs herself nude or in costume, playing a character as a way of deconstructing historical stereotypes. “I see myself flipping the script,” she said. “I found that there was a lot of power in that and in showing the self-love that is somewhat lacking in the black community.”
For Ms. Cox, this has sometimes meant rewriting history, as in her photomontage “The Last Supper of Yo Mama,” a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting in which all the figures are black men, except for Jesus, who is depicted by the naked Mrs. Cox and Judas, who is white.
In her series The Discreet Charm of the Bougies (a play on Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film The Discreet Bourgeoisie), she is the fictional, privileged Missy – wearing pearls and owning a poodle – photographed in various situations, including sitting on the couch while her white maid serves her. The series, Ms. Cox said in an interview with Aperture, shows Missy moving from a depressed state to one where she can live a life of joy, which, she explained, is also Ms. Cox’s personal experience. This led to one of the most fundamental realizations of her life, she said, and one of her Ten Commandments. “Don’t wait for people to validate you – validate yourself.”
“Lyle Ashton Harris: Our First and Last Love,” a retrospective representing 35 years of the artist’s work, opened Aug. 24 at Duke University’s Nesher Museum of Art and runs through Jan. 7, 2024. The exhibition is led by nine pieces, which are part of Mr. Harris’s ‘Shadow Works’ series. These are detailed assemblages constructed from personal photographs, shells, beads, ceramic pieces, Polaroids, sticky notes, newspaper clippings, postcards and even clippings of the artist’s hair – all framed in stretched Ghanaian textiles. Ms Haynes of the Queens Museum, who is curating this exhibition, said the Shadow Works series “comments on the moment we live in, identity, trauma, loss, relationships and the idea of legacy”.
Harris, 58, born in the Bronx and raised in Tanzania and New York, is a meticulous archivist; his archive contains thousands of photographs, lists, notes, fabric samples and other items collected throughout his life, including more than 100 personal diaries. Mr. Harris draws from this archive for many of his works, including “Obsessão II,” a collage that is more than 10 feet wide, featuring hundreds of photographs and ephemera from his archive.
“The many elements to engage with resonate deeply with people; they get to time travel,” he said. “It’s not just hundreds of photos of me, we’re looking at a club from the 90s that no longer exists, or the fortune cookie that became the title of the show.”
In 1993, Mr. Harris was eating Chinese food with a friend in Seattle when he opened his fortune cookie and pulled out the leaf. It read: “Our first and last love is self-love.”
Although not focused on portraiture, “Silver Linings,” the first national tour of works from the permanent collection of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts, features nearly 40 artists of African descent dating from 1908 to 2017. Liz Andrews, d -r, the museum’s executive director said that although the museum was founded in 1996, the historically black women’s college has been collecting art since 1899, and this exhibition includes works of sculpture, painting, drawing and mixed media.
“Silver Linings” makes its first stop at the Frances Lehman Loeb Center for the Arts at Vassar College. It opened on September 29 and runs through January 28, 2024. Like Spelman, Vassar was founded as an all-women’s college, but admitted its first black student unwittingly in 1897 because she was passing as a white woman. It would be another four decades before the school actually opened its doors to black students. “It is extremely important that a place like Vassar recognizes Spelman as a peer,” said Dr. Andrews. “I think people have come to understand that historically black colleges and universities are essential to the life and culture — and the arts — of this nation.”