“New Perspectives on Portraiture”: Symposium & Book Release at the National Portrait Gallery – Sept. 20-21

The National Portrait Gallery’s Scholarly Center, PORTAL= Portraiture + Analysis, has announced the Edgar P. Richardson Symposium “New Perspectives on Portraiture” to be held in the museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium Sept. 20 and 21. The two-day event will bring together scholars whose work expands people’s perceptions of the diversity and complexity of portrayal in portraits. Speakers will investigate the power dynamics between artists and their sitters, the manipulation and evolution of portraits as physical objects, the dissemination of images and other aspects of this artistic genre.

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beyond the face cover.jpgCoinciding with the release of the new publication Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture, which features essays by symposium participants, the two-day event will conclude with a book signing and public reception in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard. I will be presenting on my essay, “Habla LAMADRE: María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Carrie Mae Weems, and Black Feminist Performance.” The book and the symposium have already been reviewed here. This event is free to the public, but registration is required.

As the National Portrait Gallery celebrates its 50th Anniversary, the scholars brought together in Beyond the Face reconsider and expand the boundaries of the very definition of portraiture. As Smithsonian.com recently summarized in “How Can Museums Democratize Portraiture?”

Essays from an assortment of academic portrait experts, including the University of Delaware’s Jennifer Van Horn, the University of Georgia’s Akela Reason, and Wellesley College’s Nikki A. Greene, aim to bring portraiture to the people, showing how evocative images can be appropriated and re-contextualized to fuel social movements, and how seemingly crass variants on portraiture—ranging from newspaper caricature to the modern selfie—have often had the greatest lasting effects on American history.

My take on Campos-Pons’s and Neil Leonard’s (co-collaborator and husband) performance of Habla LAMADRE in 2014 considers how her insertion within the Guggenheim Museum stands as an exemplary performative portrait of a black feminist artist that is at once present and absent, still and in motion, familiar and foreign, historical and contemporary. In concert with the self-portraits and video performances by Carrie Mae Weems that were concurrently on view during her retrospective, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video. They each distinctly reveal how the portrait of an African diasporic body acts as a site of difference, rupture, fantasy, and indeed, self, in ways not traditionally available in feminist art history. The essay will be expanded in a chapter of my book, Grime, Glass, and Glitter: The Body and the Sonic in Contemporary Black Art (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

See the full program below. I hope you’ll join us!

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Photos by Nikki A. Greene. All rights reserved.

Attendance is free and open to the public. Please register at the following links:

Day 1  | https://richardsonsymposium.eventbrite.com

Day 2 | https://richardsonsymposium2.eventbrite.com

Scholars will discuss such topics as the power dynamics between artists and their sitters, the manipulation and evolution of portraits as physical objects, and the dissemination of images. The symposium will explore how portraiture has evolved and how images of people reflect codes of behavior, social and political environments, and the rhetoric of the day.


Thursday September 20, 2018 2018

8 a.m. Check-in

9 a.m. SESSION 1: Materiality and the Profession of Portraiture

  • “Body Politics: Copley’s Portraits as Political Effigies during the American Revolution”

Lauren Lessing, Director, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

Nina Roth-Wells, Paintings Conservator

Terri Sabatos, Associate Professor of Art History, Longwood University

  • “Prince Demah and the Profession of Portrait Painting”

Jennifer Van Horn, Assistant Professor of Art History and History, University of Delaware

  • “The Other’s Other: Portrait Photography in Latin America, 1890–1930”

Juanita Solano Roa, PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

  • “Meaningful (Dis)placements: The Portrait of Luis Muñoz Marín by Francisco Rodón at the National Portrait Gallery”

Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

11 a.m. Break

11:15 a.m. SESSION 1 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Kim Sajet, Director, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

12 p.m. Lunch on your own

1:45 p.m. SESSION 2: Dissemination: Furthering Social, Political, Economic, and Religious Agendas

  • “‘Capital Likenesses’: George Washington, the Federal City, and Economic Selfhood in American Portraiture”

Ross Barrett, Associate Professor of American Art, Boston University

  • “Caricature Portraits and Early American Identity”

Allison M. Stagg, Visiting Lecturer in American Art History, Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

  • “Reconstruction Reconsidered: The Gordon Collection of the National Portrait Gallery”

Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian and Director of PORTAL, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

  • “Cloud of Witnesses: Painting History through Combinative Portraiture”

Christopher Allison, Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Affiliate Faculty Member in the

Departments of History and Art History, University of Chicago

3:45 p.m. Break

4 p.m. SESSION 2 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Wendy Wick Reaves, Curator Emerita of Prints and Drawings, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Friday September 21, 2018

8 a.m. Check-in

9 a.m. SESSION 3: Reassessing Subjectivity

  • “Soul-Searching: The Portrait in Gilded Age America”

Akela Reason, Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia

  • “Photos of Style and Dignity: Woodard’s Studios and the Delivery of Black Modern Subjectivity”

Amy M. Mooney, Associate Professor of Art and Art History, Columbia College, Chicago

  • “Side Eye: Early Twentieth-Century American Portraiture on the Periphery”

Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art, The Columbus Museum

  • “Making Sense of Our Selfie Nation”

Richard H. Saunders, Director, Middlebury College Museum of Art, and Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Middlebury College

11 a.m. Break

11:15 a.m. SESSION 3 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian and Director of PORTAL, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

12 p.m. Lunch on your own

1:45 p.m. SESSION 4: Theatricality, Performativity, and Play

  • “‘Let Me Take Your Head’: Photographic Portraiture and the Gilded Age Celebrity Image”

Erin Pauwels, Assistant Professor of Art History, Temple University

  • “Playing Against Type: Frank Matsura’s Photographic Performances”

ShiPu Wang, Professor of Art History and founding faculty of the Global Arts Studies Program, University of California, Merced

  • “Call It a Little Game between ‘I’ and ‘Me’: Mar/Cel Duchamp in the Wilson-Lincoln System”

Anne Collins Goodyear, Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

  • “Habla LAMADRE: María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Carrie Mae Weems, and Black Feminist Performance”

Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor of Art History, Wellesley College

3:45 p.m. Break

4 p.m. SESSION 4 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Asma Naeem, Chief Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art

5 p.m. Book Signing and Reception in Kogod Courtyard

“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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