Black Portraitures II: BLACK GIRL MAGIC

Black Portraitures II Conference in Florence, Italy provided the beautiful surroundings, amazing fellowship and excellent scholarship that made for a perfect formula for BLACK GIRL MAGIC. You’ve seen this hashtag: #BlackGirlMagic. You may have also come across #CarefreeBlackGirl (In fact, I think I’m raising one):

These hashtags have come to mean much more in the last year. The #SayHerName movement encourages us all to remember the cis and trans black women who have been killed during altercations with the police or while in police custody, especially in the wake of the possible suicide of Sandra Bland while in a jail cell in Texas. We need to recognize women cross the country who continue to work within social, cultural, political and academic programs, movements, and institutions in order to advance black people across the country and around the world. This is my small tribute to those women I met or reunited with in Florence.

Deborah Willis was the driving force behind the Black Portraitures II conference along with a hardworking team of collaborators from New York University, Harvard University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. Dr. Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Dr. Willis has worked throughout her entire career to highlight and celebrate the creativity, talent, and beauty of African Americans, primarily (though not exclusively) in photography. Because of her and the wonderful conference staff members, BLACK GIRL MAGIC was palpable throughout our time in Florence.

Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures Reception at La Villa Pietra.
Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy.

As a photographer, curator, historian and documentarian, her commitment to the arts is unequal to most academics today. Her numerous books include Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the PresentOut [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present; Let Your Motto be Resistance – African American Portraits; Family History Memory: Photographs by Deborah Willis; VANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History with Carla Williams; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). Most recently, inspired by Deborah Willis’s book Reflections in Black, Thomas Allen Harris’s film Through a Lens Darkly premiered at Sundance in 2014 (and is now available on Netflix).

THANK YOU, Deborah Willis, for bringing us together so that we can continue to do “the work.” You’re an incomparable mentor and inspiration to so many of us.

Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene
Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra.

There were too many wonderful scholars, artists, students, and art aficionados on hand to name them all (there was so much fangirling going on). I was particularly thrilled to meet Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady (and Wellesley College grad ’76), Spelman College’s new president and art historian, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, art historian and curator Dr. Kellie Jones, feminist scholar Michele Wallace, and writer Michaela Angela Davis. All of my Dark Room Faculty Seminar sisters made the time spent there that much more enjoyable, of course. And there were so many magical moments…

We occasionally owned the streets of Florence. Right, Jasmine E. Johnson?!

Betty - BPII

There was a paper on BETTY DAVIS by De Angela Duff! Thanks for the shout out for my “Feminist Funk Power” article during your presentation!

We got to “whip our hair back and forth” when we needed to (Autumn Womack!):

When we heard Imani Uzuri sing on stage during the Out of Body panel on music, we were moved:

We also learned that magic can exist anywhere, even in a hair pick (Thanks, Ebony Coletu!)

Ultimately, all we needed to do was just stand around and see all of the beauty, talent, and intelligence that inhabited the spaces of the Odeon Theater and Villa La Pietra in Florence. As a result, WE WERE ALL BLACK PORTRAITS worthy to behold.

“Esperanza Spalding, a portrait” by Bo Gehring is Black Gold

Esperanza Spalding is not the kind of celebrity that the public searches for scathing beach shots or rumors of affairs. She’s made her mark on the music industry being the kind of thoughtful, extremely talented singer, songwriter and musician with which we wish the pop charts could be filled. In Bo Gehring’s Esperanza Spalding, a portrait (2014), she’s adorned, but not flashy. There are no tell-tell signs of luxury from the world’s top designers–no Versace gown or Louboutin shoes. Spalding carefully chose her look with sustainable materials and craftsmanship in mind. As the National Portrait Gallery states in its press release of this commissioned video portrait:

For the sitting, Spalding wore jewelry from Red Earth Trading Co. Her skirt is by Tara St. James of Study, a New York-based ethical brand using sustainable materials, and the dress under the skirt is from Tamara Horton of Studio Samuel, a small company that goes to Ethiopia to teach women to sew. The shoes are from What’s More Alive Than You, an Italian company that makes high heels out of old tables.

The architectural foundation of the wooden shoes, the twinkling gold rings, and the metallic layering of those beautiful fabrics present Spalding with the refinement of a woman so self-possessed that she shines.

With this kind of careful intentionality in displaying not only herself but also the work of others (you can literally see the different kinds of stitching used by the seamstresses), how did Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott arrive at this closing sentence in “Esperanza Spalding: Up Close but Not Personal”?

“The camera can’t get any closer, and still it reveals nothing, leaving the viewer feeling a bit cheated, a bit aggressive, and a bit disgusted.”

Cheated? He has a problem with her “celebrity” and resultant ease before Gehring’s camera. Kennicott doesn’t acknowledge that though Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011, she still doesn’t have the kind of recognizability of Justin Beiber, who she beat out for the category that year. So, why would anyone see this portrait as impersonal? If the viewer, in fact, feels “a bit cheated,” that has nothing to do with Bo Gehring’s technique or portrayal of Spalding nor does it have to do with the musician directly. The viewer must check his or her own value placed on celebrity, on a specific kind of self-seeking, attention-grabbing, over-produced sort (i.e. Justin Beiber).

Bo Gehring won the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery with his video portrait of a furniture worker, Jessica Wichmanwhich featured the sitter in modest clothes, including a slightly soiled jacket. The subject lays relatively stiff and uncomfortably during the scan, thereby offering a much more vulnerable portrayal. What Kennicott neglects to note in comparison to Bo Gehring’s winning portrait is that Spalding, too, is a worker. When you arrive at Spalding’s hands–the first sight of her body beyond her feet–you see short, unmanicured fingernails, the tools of a bassist. Yes, she smiles. She’s responding to the music. Yes, she’s styled. That’s part of her work, too.

Esperanza hands
Bo Gehring, “Esperanza Spalding, a portrait.” Video Still. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 2014.

Aggressive? The portrait of Spalding embodies the very lyrics that she gracefully performs on “Black Gold” that somewhat explains Kennicott’s false description of the artist:

Now maybe no one else has ever told you so
But you’re golden, baby
Black Gold with a diamond soul
Think of all the strength you have in you
From the blood you carry within you
Ancient men, powerful men
Builders of civilization
They’ll be folks hell-bent on putting you down
Don’t get burned
‘Cause not necessarily everyone will know your worth

Disgusted? Many visual artists have addressed directly the ways in which the portrayal of the black female body has been systematically degraded, especially within the art world. I’m thinking here of Faith Ringgolds series of paintings revising the very history of art by inserting herself, her family members, historical figures and other black bodies directly into versions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Most recently, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, engendered disgust for me in how others responded (see Azucar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”). As an art historian, I also think of philosopher and artist Dr. Adrian Piper‘s assertion that there is a “triple negation of the colored woman artist,” a dismissal of her worth just for being “colored,” a woman, and an artist (See Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetics, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 239–48). Dr. Deborah Willis‘ book and traveling exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009) offers over 200 photographs of wonderfully diverse representations of the beauty of the black body from vintage ladies’ journal to newspapers. Posing Beauty is only one of many books on photography by Willis that documents and historicizes black folk looking good, “knowing their worth.” Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic, did not see his own shortcoming of ascribing to some vague guidelines on how black beauty should be portrayed and appreciated. What should she have looked like? I dare not ask.

When the camera pans on Spalding’s face, did you catch the slight flittering grin and knowing nod? She glows under Gehring’s lens, not just because she’s so used to being in front of the camera and in the public eye, as Kennicott suggests, but rather in concert with the music, she knows intimately the brilliance of the song she chose, Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde” (1974). Yes, Gehring’s camera reveals something, Mr. Kennicott: Spaulding is as radiant as Black Gold.

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