We all want the world to see us in the best possible pictures. Why else would we click multiple photographs of ourselves before deciding which of them to post online?
Artist, photographer, historian, writer and educator Deborah Willis has been interested in how African-Americans see themselves in photographic images for much of her career.
Professor and chair of the photography department at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she’s written numerous books, including “Picturing Us” and “Posing Beauty,” that look at the intersection of history, culture and identity in black imagery.
Her explorations at a recent Telfair Museums lecture take us from images of Frederick Douglas and runaway slave ads in 19th century newspapers to today’s contemporary art.
She’s especially interested in the way African-Americans have shaped their self-image and allowed themselves to overcome negative representations by the culture at large.
She offers many examples.
Willis says dancer and actress Josephine Baker once photographed herself surrounded by Greek and Italian sculptures. The image connects black beauty with classic beauty.
“These works are stones that are part of Western art history,” Willis says of the photo. “She’s aligning her beauty with this history.”
Another artist put herself in higher company. Renee Cox caused a stir in 1996 with “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” depicting her as a nude black woman in the place of Jesus.
“Who is in control?” Willis asks of similar images that cross historic references. “How can we change the idea of language, the idea of life and dignity within the framing of it?”
And just in case you don’t yet see the struggle for human rights and dignity in these artist explorations, consider a piece by Willis’ son, the visual artist Hank Willis Thomas.
Thomas reflected on the “I am a man” posters from the 1960’s and created a work that started out with “I am 3/5ths a man” and continued through, “I be a man,” “Be a man,” “A man M I A,” “I am the man,” “I am human,” and “Ain’t I a woman?” among others.
“He decided to create a piece through a black man’s perspective as well as a black person’s perspective,” Willis says. “He wants people to think about and question the aspect of language and how language has guided this history.”
Willis returns several times in this talk to the artist Mickalene Thomas, the subject of an exhibit at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts, “Mickalene Thomas at Giverny.”
Best known for elaborate, collage-inspired paintings, Thomas uses rhinestones, enamel and acrylics to reflect on black beauty. The exhibit is on display through January tenth.
“She’s looking and recreating, telling an imagined experience that we can see as a collage that she transforms the environment through her own experience of the residencies that she’s travelled through this history,” Willis says.
This 52-minute lecture is presented by Telfair Museums’ Friends of African-American Art. It is the 2015 Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Lecture, made possible by the Lawrence Foundation and the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
To connect more with this talk, visit the exhibit “Mickalene Thomas at Giverny” at the Jepson Center. The exhibit reflects on Thomas’ artist residency in Giverny, France, where Claude Monet lived for 43 years. It accents the Jepson Center’s main exhibit through January 24th, “Monet and American Impressionism.”