Atlanta

Black Chronicles II at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Born on the Danish island colony of Saint Croix with two generations of slaves behind him, the champion heavyweight boxer Peter Jackson cuts a lean and noble figure in his 1889 photographic portrait, his top hat perched level upon his head, his elegant Victorian garments pressed, his stylish accoutrements placed as evidence of his social persona as a gentleman–dandy. The portrait was taken just a year after his defeat of George “Old Chocolate” Godfrey, which gained him the “World Colored Heavyweight Championship” title, and the commanding confidence of his gaze and body language tells us that this is not a man easily bested. However, Jackson’s popularity in Great Britain (his nickname in the British press was “The Prince”) and powerful self-presentation in the photograph do not wipe away the historical context of the image, namely an era of tremendous institutional racism and oppression of Black subjects in 19th-century Britain, and the nation’s merciless colonial expansions on the continent of Africa and in the Middle East. As empowering as it is ambiguous, Jackson’s portrait belies the complicated admixture of cultural codes and fantasies imposed upon the Black subject in visual representation, and points to the unsettled struggle between the subject’s own agency, their mediation through the eye of the camera, and the conditions of Black cultural politics.

Peter Jackson aka ‘The Black Prince’. London Stereoscopic Company, 2 December 1889. 42.5 x 31.5”. Framed & Unglazed. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

London Stereoscopic Company. Peter Jackson Aka the ‘Black Prince'; December 2, 1889; 42.5 x 31.5 in. Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Jackson’s image is just one of the many striking photographic portraits included in Black Chronicles II at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia, that activate an important dialogue about the history and record of Black faces and bodies within Western culture. Organized in its original formation by the British photographic institute Autograph ABP in 2014, and curated by two of its most prominent staff members, Renée Massai and Mark Sealy, Black Chronicles II embodies Autograph’s commitment to mining public and private archives of images for the absent Black subject—a mission that “renders visible” the gaps, omissions, and absences within historical annals. In its move to Atlanta, the exhibition opens up a new strand of conversation around the history of the Black subject in the United States and asks viewers to make connections between the British and American formations of empire, racism, and colonialism.

Unidentified Sitter. Edinburgh, c. 1900. Photographer/Studio: Alex Ayton Junior. Carte-de-visite, 64 x 100 mm. Courtesy of Val Wilmer Collection.

Photographer/Studio: Alex Ayton Junior. Unidentified Sitter, Edinburgh; c. 1900. Carte-de-visite; 64 x 100 mm. Courtesy of Val Wilmer Collection.

Following the logic of the chronicle as a temporal record that orders (and often visualizes) historical events, this exhibition also enables viewers to discover new ways of seeing Black subjects within traditional histories of photography, and demands an awareness of the ways in which the historiography of the still image remains un-diverse and exclusionary. The photographs on display capture an array of stories and figures, from Jackson and Queen Victoria’s West African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta to unidentified sitters whose portraits function as sacred testimony to the collective formation and development of 19th-century British history and representational politics. Wearing fashionable dress and posed within the artificial theater of the photographic studio, these faces describe the fragmentation and heterogeneity of the Black subject and emphasize the ways in which Black subjectivity has been cast out or left unidentified within (visual) culture. The galleries at Spelman reverberate with Frantz Fanon’s description of “the passionate research” that is necessary to make space for these lost voices.[1]

Member of The African Choir, London Stereoscopic Company, 1891. 42.5 x 31.5” Framed & Unglazed. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

London Stereoscopic Company. Member of the African Choir, 1891; framed & unglazed; 42.5 x 31.5 in. Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The dedication of this exhibition to the British cultural theorist and activist Stuart Hall (who died in 2014) links the legacies of Hall’s intellectual project to Autograph’s institutional mission, and forms the academic and political foundations of this body of photographs.[2] As the spokesperson for the British cultural-studies movement of the 1980s, Hall was an integral part of a generation that brought Black and ethnic minority artists into visibility in a time of Thatcherism, Reaganomics, the New Left, Jesse Helms, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Hall’s contribution to the field of cultural and minority studies is vast; it remains vital today, as new struggles for civil and race rights continue to challenge and mine the unequal fields of representation within American political life. It is clear to me that the curatorial premise of this exhibition is inextricably linked to the call of #BlackLivesMatter, which places the lives and bodies of African Americans at the forefront of an ongoing national dialogue on racial violence and oppression. In our current climate of protests, demonstrations, and riots, funneled through the channels of mainstream and social media, the representation of the Black subject “continues to become and transform within culture, history, and power.”[3][4]

Black Chronicles II is on view at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta through May 16, 2016.

 

 

[1] See Frantz Fanon’s text Black Skin/White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, NY: Grove Press, 2008, pg. 22.

[2] Audio excerpts from Hall’s 2008 keynote address, “The Missing Chapter: Cultural Identity and the Photographic Archive,” given at Rivington Place in London, echo throughout the galleries.

[3] See Stuart Hall, “The Work of Representation” in Representations: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, pg. 57–58.

[4] The exhibition was organized by Autograph ABP, London; curated by Renée Massai and Mark Sealy; and produced in collaboration with the Hulton Archive, London, a division of Getty Images.

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