Discussion goals: By placing each work in a historical context, and by considering its technique and materials, students will be encouraged to relate it to questions of identity, belonging, and perceptions and representations of different races.
Wedgwood Medallion of a Slave
The silhouette of a kneeling slave became emblematic of the international European anti-slavery campaign in the eighteenth century. Josiah Wedgwood, famed potter, entrepreneur, and an English abolitionist, issued this medallion based on the seal of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade: a slave on one knee clasps his chained hands and asks, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood produced many medallions, sending some to Benjamin Franklin, a former slave owner who had become a “cautious abolitionist,” for distribution to his network of connections. Some medallions were worn as jewelry or otherwise displayed; we do not know when this example was set into a tile or how the tile was displayed.
Analyze the materials and representation of the figure. Why might this work have become so iconic?
How does the text function in relation to the representation of the slave?
Consider the small scale of this work as a medallion that could be displayed or worn.
Gordon Parks, Soapbox Orator, Harlem, New York
Renowned for his keenly observed documentary photographs that chronicle the black American experience, Gordon Parks was also a writer, musician, poet, composer, and film director. Parks returned to Harlem after working in Washington, D.C. for a 1952 project inspired by the publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison, who had lived in Harlem for more than a decade, collaborated with Parks on the project. “With Ellison’s help he re-created from the novel . . . scenes . . . to show the horror and disillusionment of a man who has lost faith in himself and his world.” For this inventive variation on the documentary photo essay, Parks shot “a series of images of an actor on the streets of Harlem.” The resulting story, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” was published in the August 25, 1952 issue of Life.
Does the style of this photograph seem like that of a documentary work or a portrait? Which details would you use to support your argument?
Both Parks and Ligon refer to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Compare the two works of art in terms of their medium and use of text. How do they approach the subject of race differently?
Glenn Ligon, Untitled: Four Etchings
One of the most important contemporary artists working today, Glenn Ligon first came to prominence in the late 1980s. Race, homosexuality, prejudice, and stereotypes constitute his primary subject matter, while quotation is one of his primary strategies. Untitled: Four Etchings is related—formally, thematically, and historically—to the work for which he is best known: oil-stick and coal dust “paintings” from the early to mid-1990s. Composed of two black-on-black and two black-on-white prints, the work triggers a play between legibility and illegibility, presence and absence, visibility and erasure, and white and black that operates simultaneously on many different levels. Excerpts from the writing of two African American authors anchor the work. On the black-on-white prints, Ligon repeats two sentences from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928); on the black-on-black prints, he quotes a single passage from the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The struggle to read these texts mirrors the struggle of the “I” to assert itself; more specifically, it evokes the struggle of the African American “I” to claim its agency, voice, and worth. This struggle is not the characters’ or the authors’ alone: as a gay African American man, Ligon bears the burden of non- or mis-recognition as well.
How did Ligon use text instead of a figure to create a representational work?
Describe the contrasts in language, clarity, and color used in these prints. How do they affect the viewer’s interpretation of the works?
Nikki S. Lee, The Hispanic Project (1)
In her series Projects, Lee adapted methods from anthropological fieldwork and performance art to scrutinize the visual cues of social groups—including drag queens, punks, senior citizens, exotic dancers, skateboarders, lesbians, young urban professionals, and Korean schoolgirls. After making herself over, she would seek admission into these social circles and adapt her style and mannerisms. Lee has said that the pictures were taken by her new acquaintances, with the only instruction being to get her within the frame. The resulting photographs are ambiguous documents of encounters between the artist and her collaborators. Responding to the critique that photographers manipulate the representation of others, Lee investigates the complex dynamic between photographer, subject, and viewer.
What are the markers of identity in this work?
How does the artist’s performance and participation in the work inform the viewer’s reading of the group?
Sample Classes and Checklists
Nijah Cunningham: AAS 392 / ENG 392: Topics in African American Literature – Fictions of Black Urban Life
Christopher Achen, FRS 101: American Politics in the Age of Donald Trump
Kinohi Nishikawa ENG 556/ AAS 556: African-American Literature: The Archival Turn
Wallace Best: AAS 368 / REL 368: Topics in African American Religion – Black Religion and the Harlem Renaissance