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Five Questions with National Portrait Gallery Curator Asma Naeem about "Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now"

“Silhouettes to me tell all of these different stories about early America that otherwise we would never be able to tell here at the Portrait Gallery. It's just a complete wonderful, messy vision of an early America that I want people to understand. It's not just the presidents walking around and the founding fathers drafting documents about our independence and liberty. We are a polyphonic, vibrant, diverse society from the very beginning.” — Asma Naeem

We often think of photography as the first art form that transcended limitations of class and financial access, but according to Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Curator Dr. Asma Naeem, there’s a much earlier and much simpler form that deserves the credit: silhouettes. The subject of a new show at the National Portrait Gallery, silhouettes have a fascinating history from their mention by an ancient Roman philosopher as the earliest representational art to the silhouettes “craze” of the 19th century to the way in which silhouettes have influenced ideas such as racial profiling and even our social media profiles. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now is on view through March 10, 2019, featuring many fine examples of traditional silhouettes as well as contemporary innovations in the form by a quartet of woman artists: Kara Walker, Kumi Yamashita, Camille Utterback, and Kristi Malakoff. We visited the show with Naeem where she told us about the exhibit’s origins, what she discovered researching the exhibit, and the ways in which this treasure trove of early American art complicates our understanding of our nation’s early history.

full-body silhouette of an Asian man in traditional dress

Chin Sung, Auguste Edouart (1788-1861)1841. Lithograph and cut paper on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

NEA: What was the origin of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now?

ASMA NAEEM: When I started here [at the National Portrait Gallery] four years ago, I saw that I was the custodian of over 2000 silhouettes in our collection. I thought, I need to do a show around these because what I see is silhouettes all around us. I've just been a lover of silhouettes since I was a very young girl. I have silhouettes of my children. I used to go into antique shops all the time and buy silhouettes. I just think they're so fresh and modern and they're so intriguing because there's no inside detail but you can project so much onto that kind of generalized black void.

The first representation in art is in the 3rd century BC. It's of a young Corinthian maiden who is about to say goodbye to her lover who's about to go fight in a war. She says, "Please don't go." And he says, "I must." She says, "Well, before you go, please let me have an image of you so that I can hold on to you and remember you as you're fighting." She has him stand in front of the cave wall. There's candlelight and she traces his profile. Pliny, who was an ancient philosopher, wrote about this and in the history of art that Corinthian maiden tale is known as the first moment of artmaking, but also the first moment of a silhouette.

I found it fascinating that in the early 1800s, silhouettes became the most popular form of portraiture around. Literally hundreds of thousands of Americans were getting their silhouettes made. Well guess what? At the same time that they're getting silhouettes made of themselves looking as an entirely black person, blackness is being contested in terms of slavery. Blackness is being discussed in public halls. Blackness is being devalued and [people are] saying if you're black, you don't get to vote. You're not even an actual person, you're an object. So I find it really interesting to think about how all these people all over America were getting themselves made into these black profiles and blackness was being contested as a humanity issue, as a civil rights issue if you will, a human rights issue.

full-body silhouette of John Quincy Adams with additional drawn details

John Quincy Adams by Auguste Edouart. Lithograph, chalk and cut paper on paper, 1841. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

NEA: What were some of the things that surprised you as you were doing the research to put this show together?

NAEEM: I knew that silhouettes were popular; I just didn't understand how pervasive they were. To give you an example, Charles Wilson Peale is this very famous portrait painter. He painted George Washington from life seven times. He had a museum in Philadelphia. His son took the portable physiognotrace [a machine used to trace someone’s silhouette] and traveled up and down from Maine down to Georgia cutting silhouettes. In one month, he made $1,800 dollars. In 1804 silhouettes cost 25 cents—that’s a lot of silhouettes! The other thing is that silhouettes opened up an entire new vision of early America that I didn't really know existed. All of a sudden I saw people from all walks of life, and that was really my big thesis: silhouettes democratized portraiture. Photography would eventually take silhouettes' place when it was invented in 1839 and it became more available for popular use and consumption in the late 1800s. But in the early 1800s, silhouettes allowed people who couldn't afford a fancy oil portrait and a fancy oil portrait painter [to] have an image of themselves, of their loved ones.

There were people who were getting their likenesses made whom you would never even think existed in America in the early 1800s. There there are disability pioneers [such as] Laura Dewey Bridgman, who was deaf and blind. We have this gorgeous silhouette of her and we learned that she was learning how to read by these wooden letters that were placed on objects like forks. Charles Dickens came in and saw that and her efforts helped to promote the Braille language. You have people like the earliest version of Tom Thumb, a dwarf who was living and making money in society. You have enslaved people… who are normally eviscerated from our history, normally rendered completely invisible. We get to see what some of these people look like. August Edouart, the most accomplished [silhouette cutter of the 19th century], he cut 3800 silhouettes from 1839 to 1849 and he kept a meticulous record. Of those 3800, seven of them he noted as enslaved people. Two of [the Edouart images] are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I borrowed those [for this show]. These women are nameless; they're both named after their masters. But we get to see what they looked like. We get to see their carriage. We get to see that they were dignified human beings, however stripped of their dignity they were.

You have people from all walks of life. You have laborers. You have presidents. We have John Quincy Adams. We have a same sex couple, which is arguably the earliest representation of a same sex couple from the early 1800s, Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant. Charity Bryant was the aunt of the famous editor and writer William Cullen Bryant in New York and he wrote about their relationship in his diary and that's how we can know that they had a relationship for 40 years of "uninterrupted harmony."

silhouette of the head of an Moses Williams

Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles by Raphaelle Peale, by Moses Williams. Cut paper and ink on paper, c. 1803. The Library Company of Philadelphia

Some of the silhouette cutters were incredible entrepreneurs, people who would never otherwise have a voice or power or agency. You have Martha Ann Honeywell, a woman who was completely without hands. Her arms ended at her elbows. One of her feet had only three toes. She was born into a very large family that needed money in New York City. She quickly realized that she needed to make money so she would cut silhouettes with her elbows and one of her feet. She went on for a 50-year career traveling all over this country and Europe with her mom to sold-out audiences cutting silhouettes. She would write, "Cut Without Hands" or "Cut With Mouth" [on her silhouettes]. Now disability scholars are talking about her biography and looking at her art and unpacking the contradictions of her condition. Was she promoting agency for people who have disabilities? Yes. Was she being viewed as somebody who was not normal and that was part of the attraction? Yes. And so those stories can be unpacked.

The last one I'll tell you about in terms of an interesting silhouette cutter is Moses Williams. Again, Charles Wilson Peale enters the picture because it's in his Philadelphia museum where he gives Moses Williams, a slave working in his custody, he gives him the access to the physiognotrace and he says, "I want you to learn to operate this. When museum visitors come in, they can pay eight cents. You'll get four cents of it or six cents. And if you cut their silhouettes, you'll get to keep this profit." Eventually at 28, [Moses Williams] was freed. He was considered a "mulatto." He continued to be listed in the Philadelphia city directory as a silhouette cutter. He married the Peale family cook, Maria, who was white. He bought a house.

silhouette on a light colored jug

Absalom Jones by Unidentified Artist. Liverpool ware jug, c. 1808. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Sidney Kaplan

NEA: How long did it take to put the show together and what were some of the challenges?

NAEEM: It took about four years; I pretty much started on this when I began [at the National Potrait Gallery]. I wanted to think very carefully about the stories that I am in fact telling. While I do want Americans and visitors to see this vibrant society and while I do want to discuss how enslaved people were stripped of their humanity and we don't know many details of their biography… I wanted to make sure I gave some of these people agency in the show. So I made sure that I found depictions of empowered African-Americans that were silhouettes to put into the show. We thankfully have two of them from our own collection. Paul Cuffee was an entrepreneur who operated a shipping vessel that went to Sierra Leone and he was a mixed-race individual. He was Wampanoag Native American as well as African American. He was revered, and his silhouette image was created by abolitionists to promote the idea that these are the wonderful things that African Americans can accomplish in our society. There’s also Reverend Absalom Jones; we have a silhouette of him on a pitcher. [He was] the first African-American Episcopalian ordained minister and a great abolitionist.

The other pitfall was I didn't want people to think of this as your grandmother's silhouettes. I wanted people to see silhouettes anew. I wanted to take silhouettes from that very small box in the antique shop that has dust all over it and make scholars and make visitors realize that this is an art form. That with all of our baggage around the word "craft," that craft can be fine art, it can tell a story that belongs in a fine art museum and it can tell us many things that we didn’t normally want to give credit to, something that is as ephemeral as a silhouette. So that was another challenge. And then finding contemporary artists who are unpacking silhouettes in a meaningful way and not just using it as a quick graphic solution, that was the other challenge I would say.

origami silhouettes by artist Kumi Yamashita

Origami by Kumi Yamashita. Japanese paper, single light source, and cast shadow, 2017. Photo by Mitch Ranger

NEA: How can we build on the experience of seeing Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now?

NAEEM: I love that question. It's a really deep question, actually. I hope this doesn't sound like a shameless plug, but there's another exhibition that I co-curated downstairs, UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar. My colleague, Taína Caragol, who is the curator of Latino history and culture, worked with Ken Gonzales-Day for that exhibition and I worked with artist Titus Kaphar. That exhibition is two contemporary artistswho use their own particular pictorial idiom.

For Titus it's oil painting on canvas. For Ken Gonzalez-Day, it's conceptual photography using actual stored museum objects or otherwise previously created museum objects like lynching photographs. They create a new understanding of our past by refocusing our attention on people of color, people who have traditionally been completely erased from our past. So they're creating new histories. [Titus Kaphar’s work asks] whose history do we learn in our textbooks? Titus has a portrait of Thomas Jefferson that's half off of a stretcher and behind it is a painting of an unclothed African-American woman. And of course he's referring obliquely and directly at the same time to the relationship of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson, which many people still do not know about. The New York Times just had an article… about how Monticello is now officially recognizing Sally Hemmings's chambers on the grounds and how they have various didactics about that relationship and they decided to use the word "rape."And they ask visitors to ask questions to think about that word. What was this relationship that ended up in six children, two of whom died at childbirth, four of whom grew up, three of whom passed as white? And Sally Hemmings herself was, obviously, the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife.

So there's just a lot of complexities and nuances in our histories and narratives that we don't really know about that these contemporary artists are unpacking. But I would also encourage [people to read] a new biography of Oney Judge, the enslaved worker for Martha Washington who ran away. She walked out the back door in Philadelphia from the Washington home, ran up to New Hampshire. Lived there for 40-plus years. Gave interviews. Said, "I do not feel shame. I am a good Christian. I've lived a happy life." We can read about this. There's biographies. We can read about Thomas Jefferson through Annette Gordon-Reed's work. We can look at Ken Gonzalez-Day. The artist has actually written an incredible book about lynchings and how lynchings didn't just affect African Americans but there were Mexicans and Jewish-Americans and people from other surprisingly different populations. So exhibitions are one way, yes. Reading, listening to podcasts about things that we would normally never think about in terms of our past that show a through line to the present I think is something that we can all do.

silhouette of head of an African American woman traced on brown paper

Flora, Unidentified artist. Cut paper on paperboard, with pen and brown ink. Stratford Historical Society, Stratford, CT.

NEA: I’d like to end by talking about one of the pieces in the show. What can you tell us about Flora, which is a silhouette of an enslaved young woman?

NAEEM: This is a national treasure, in my opinion. This is a life-size silhouette on brown paperboard with pen and brown ink, a life-sized silhouette of [the head of] a woman named Flora. It was probably drawn from candlelight. Her hair has been shaped or abstracted into these cone-like forms. You can see her eyebrow and her nose and her lips and the neck. And what I find absolutely remarkable is that her portrait was most probably only made to sell her as an object. We have that knowledge because of the bill of sale dated from 1796, December 13th, and it says that this "Negro wench" is being sold for £25 pounds sterling to the Asa Benjamin family in Connecticut. We hear about the slave trade, we think about the dehumanizing aspects of being an enslaved person, but to me these two documents combined together from such an early part of our history put everything in a completely different perspective. We are face to face with this woman, and we can only imagine the range of emotions that she must have been going through as she's being captured in profile.

The part that I find absolutely incredible is that both of these documents were found folded up in the cellar of the Benjamin home in the 1900s. So literally, they had already been sitting there, the documents, for over 100-some years. And I've gone into that cellar. It's a low ceilinged, stone-lined cold place. There's barely any light. There's a huge fireplace. And it's just heart-wrenching to think of how this woman lived. When they found these documents, they opened them up and they put them under glass. And I went to the Stratford Historical Society, which has been the most kind partner in this exhibition, and they said, "Of course we'll lend her." And we were able to get their permission to conserve her.

So that's the other gift that this show is providing. Flora has now been completely conserved by one of our conservators here at the Portrait Gallery. There were some areas of loss in the paper. Our conservator made her own paper and hand-colored it to refill those areas of loss. We've now properly matted her in an archival mat and put her under the proper glazing. So this story is going to be able to be told to so many different generations. For us to come face to face with the slave trade… in a northern state, you know, in Connecticut, these are the kind of eye-opening moments in this kind of show. [This show bring us] face to face with this woman named Flora who was known to die in 1815 in the Asa Benjamin home. It allows me to tell her story, allows me to give her a moment of agency and pride of place despite all of her difficulties and the adversities that she must have faced at the time.

One of the major fascinating points that I found out through my research is the tensions, the paradoxes that silhouettes are able to contain, not just visually, like black and white flatness versus suggesting an embodied person, but just the idea of general versus specific. We look at profiles and we think we can tell the race of the person. That's where racial profiling comes from. And so all of those ideas are shown so strongly in this work. It is multi-layered. Silhouettes to me tell all of these different stories about early America that otherwise we would never be able to tell here at the Portrait Gallery. It's just a complete wonderful, messy vision of an early America that I want people to understand. It's not just the presidents walking around and, the founding fathers drafting documents about our independence and liberty. We are a polyphonic, vibrant, diverse society from the very beginning.

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