February is the one month we focus on Black History and the contributions that Black Americans bring to our communities. Vassar Lehman Loeb Art Center currently has a jewel of on art exhibit up, “Visible Bodies: Representing Blackness,” curated from Vassar’s permanent collection by Jessica D. Brier, a Deknatel Curatorial Fellow in Photography.
In her curatorial statement Brier writes: “Throughout its history, photography has held the powerful promise of making the world more visible. Lived experiences – both individual and collective – are often represented by the visibility of human figures.”
“Visible Bodies” explores visual culture and questions who is allowed to participate within that culture. The exhibit is situated in an intimate gallery encouraging time to ponder the works, such as Arnold Joseph Kemp’s “Possible Bibliography.”
This photo project shows an alternative representation of literary history by the artist who has photographed himself holding 52 books and literary works by Black authors. There are selected photographs displayed in a vitrine, but seeing all 52 prints scroll by on the video allows you to consider how many of the authors and books might be familiar to you.
Several exhibited tintypes are examples of Black individuals using photography as a means to control depictions of themselves. In one, two Black men are nicely dressed in suits, hats and ties. They are positioned beside a plinth to ensure they don’t move in the few minutes it takes to capture the image to the exposed photographic plate. These studio portraits were a popular way to create, as Brier writes, an image “in which identity is constructed and negotiated, rather than assigned and fixed.”
Several of the pieces on exhibit speak to this reimagining of identity, such as Nari Ward’s “American,” a photo screenprint that mixes imagery creating an alternative narrative about a woman depicted on currency who works at a dollar store.
Mickalene Thomas responds to European painting from the 19th century by staging a portrait that switches the narrative of the male gaze. In “Tamika sur une chaise longue,” viewers see a powerful black woman lounging on a chaise. Styled after Matisse’s odalisque series, this figure gazes directly back at the viewer as she luxuriates in her beauty surrounded by textiles reflecting on the Black Power movement of the 1970s.
Carrie Mae Weems is represented in the collection with “Hush of our Silence,” a piece that features a Victrola, the symbol of recorded and amplified sound during the early 1900s. The text Weems includes below the image feels like a tense conversation between two intimate partners. Does the Victrola symbolize the repetitive playback of conversations with no resolution? The placement of text and image recalls the John Berger essays on “Ways of Seeing,” where he posits that placement of imagery with text changes the context and interpretation of an image.
While these nine artworks by Black artists in the Vassar collection do represent Blackness, Brier writes, “This selection represents our institutional aspiration and commitment to genuine inclusion, and to centering Black creativity, scholarship, and lives in our programs.”
If you go
What: “Visible Bodies: Representing Blackness”
Where: The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie.
When: Through March 7
Hours: For general public only Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
Health and Safety: All visitors are required to wear a mask. Please observe the directional signage within the galleries and social distancing with visitors not in your immediate party.
In compliance with current New York State Department of Health guidelines for indoor museums, the Loeb will limit the number of visitors in the galleries at any given time to 75. Should the galleries be at full capacity when you arrive, we ask for your patience and understanding if you must wait a short while before entering.
Linda Marston-Reid is an artist, writer and executive director of Arts Mid-Hudson. Art From Here appears every other week in Sunday Life. Contact her at 845-454-3222 or [email protected].