In this time of racial reckoning with conversations and controversies around the 1619 Project and critical race theory, Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery has brought two exhibitions designed to facilitate understanding and create dialogue around the topic of racial equality.
“Horace Pippin: Racism and War” and “Tracing Slavery: Moses Williams Kara Walker” are not only important historic exhibits but also brilliantly curated artistic presentations.
“Racism and War” is centered on Horace Pippin’s powerful work, “Mr. Prejudice,” which represents the artist’s response to the discrimination of African-American soldiers fighting in World War II. Painted in 1943, the work shows a bare-chested white man hammering a wedge into the center of a giant “V”—for victory— which cracks under the stress. Surrounded by Ku Klux Klansman and a white man with a noose, the figure of prejudice strikes a physical and symbolic blow against a group of figures, united in their efforts to win the war, depicted below the victory symbol.
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Using Pippin’s work as a starting point, the exhibition looks at the efforts to include African Americans in the war efforts in both World War I and World War II and how ideals and realities often clashed. Several vintage WWI posters artistically pitch the service and commitment of African Americans. Yet Pippin, who fought in WWI as part of the 369th Regiment (an African-American Infantry division nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters”), knew well how poorly African-American soldiers were treated after they returned home.
Seizing on the omnipresent victory symbol present in WWII propaganda posters, African Americans created the “Double V” movement that sought both victory against fascism abroad and against racism at home. Several photographs by Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris document this underappreciated chapter in history.
A companion show, “Tracing Slavery,” pairs silhouette imagery by Moses Williams, created during the early years of the American Republic, and contemporary artist Kara Walker. “Tracing Slavery” considers issues of racism and the African-American experience through the simple, yet direct medium of cut-paper profiles, or silhouettes. Silhouettes were a popular form of portraiture in early 19th century America. Silhouettes provided a way to accurately portray individuals in the pre-photography era.
Moses Williams (c. 1775–c. 1825) was born enslaved into the household of Charles Willson Peale, the early-American portraitist, naturalist and museum founder. Williams worked in Peale’s home and fledgling museum in Philadelphia, where he cut portrait silhouettes of visitors to the museum. Most of his portraits represent members of the white elite, some of whom were slaveholders. Several examples of Williams’ works are displayed.
The complex relationship between Peale and Williams illustrates the tense, uneasy role that slavery played in the United States prior to the Civil War. The forces that led to this inevitable conflict had multiple causes, but slavery was its primary cause.
Shortly after the Civil War, “Harper’s Weekly,” a widely popular illustrated magazine, compiled imagery from its coverage of the conflict into “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.” Moving away from its pro-Union coverage during the war, the editors repackaged its coverage into a form that would be more palatable, especially to Southern readers. The presence of Black people in the imagery, both free and enslaved, was minimized.
Kara Walker sought to rectify this in her series “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” by reinserting the Black presence in her appropriation and adaptation of the historical illustrations superimposed with her signature silhouettes. These silhouettes often border on caricature and exaggerated stereotypes.
Walker states, “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does.” Walker’s silhouettes draw a direct connection between historical demonization and degradation of Black bodies in the post-Civil War era.
At first nostalgic, even charming in appearance, Walker’s silhouette imagery depicts the brutal reality of racial violence in American society. “Scene of McPherson’s Death,” contrasts a Romantic image of where a hero fell with that of the overprint of a silhouette of a young boy with a severed foot, alluding to the everyday brutalization of slaves. In a comparable manner, “Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp,” a Black male figure covered in vegetation seems to tower over the swamp scene, an allusion to how racism would haunt the land for decades to come.
With contrasting black and white silhouettes, “Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta” shows the hasty retreat of persons and property from the advancing Union army. Closer inspection reveals a Black boy and a white boy working together to load property onto a cart. The fiction of harmony in the silhouettes and the fiction contained in the scene belies the ugly reality of the ownership of human beings as property.
Unlike traditional silhouette artists, Walker does not create portrait likenesses, rather, she employs the medium as a way to interrogate history and expose racism. In “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” Walker “corrects” the Reconstruction-era publication by overlaying its images with silhouettes of African Americans, whose presence and experiences were edited out of the American experience, diminishing the brutality and suffering that they endured.
Both “Horace Pippin: Racism and War” and “Tracing Slavery” force the viewer to confront sides of American history that are unpleasant, uncomfortable and unsavory. Yet, it is by examining our history with the cold eye of reality that one can move forward from comfortable fiction to a more balanced account of our past. Both the artistic qualities and the thought-provoking nature of these shows are compelling.
“Horace Pippin: Racism and War” is on display until Feb. 19, and “Tracing Slavery: Moses Williams Kara Walker” is on display until Jan. 22. Both exhibits can be seen at the Trout Gallery located in the Emil R. Weiss Center for the Arts on the Dickinson College campus, 240 W. High St., Carlisle. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The gallery is free and open to the public. For more information on the exhibition visit www.troutgallery.org.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent over 30 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the art scene, both locally and internationally, for nine years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.
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