Explore the VaultsBlack Portraits

July 31, 2021 through February 27, 2022

Romare Bearden, The Train (detail), 1975, Photogravure and aquatint, Published by Printmaking Workshop, Ed. of 125, Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously

Although thoroughly dependent on its context, portraiture has powerful capacities for self-definition. Explore the Vaults: Black Portraits spans two very different approaches to the portrait tradition: contemporary works on paper, and historical vernacular photographs. Taken together, this exhibition presents varied approaches to visualizing Black identity and experiences.

Romare Bearden began to experiment with collage techniques in the early 1960s, pioneering an aesthetic that combined mass media imagery with materials including fabric and painted paper.  The vibrant, yet distorted figures he created are in states of fragmentation, suggesting their inner complexities. Contemporary artist Derrick Adams uses a similar deconstructivist approach to his hard-edge portraits, suggesting the many parts that make up the whole of a person. The complexity of personal identity is also addressed in the works of Alison Saar and Emma Amos, who use self-portraits to consider their relationship to the African diaspora.

The historical vernacular photographs in the exhibition include tintypes, gelatin silver prints, and albumen prints, as well as a family album. They provide not only a view into the domestic lives of Black families after the emancipation of enslaved Americans in 1862 through the early twentieth century, but also create a link to contemporary artists. Among these is Whitfield Lovell, who collects and uses vintage photographs in his work.

While the works on view are not tied together stylistically, they nonetheless exhibit crucial and varying forms of Black self-representation.