Saturday, March 26, 2011

New Images of Resistance Reveal Contemporary Resignation

Let Your Motto Be Resistance is an exhibition of 68 photographs from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which opened Friday at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is the first ever collaboration between the Freedom Center and the Smithsonian.

The title of the show comes from the1843 "An Address to the Slaves of the United States" by the abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet. The premise of the exhibition is to present a more contemporary definition of "resistance." NURFC curator, Dina Bailey, correctly suggests when we think of resistance we think of images of violence or protests. Instead, many of the photographs in this show are of well-known (if not by face, by name) individuals who embraced Garnet's plea. Familiar names include Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald, and Amira Baraka. The photographs are arranged around a stark white gallery and grouped in 3 categories: "Activists," "Performers and Athletes," and "Writers and Intellectuals." Each category is labeled with an explanation or definition of the category of resistance. Each photograph is labeled with an introduction to the individual, their challenges, and successful resistance.

What's most successful about the exhibition is that no matter how familiar the viewer may be of the subjects, the viewer may be surprised to learn the stories of resistance. While we can accept Ali as "The Greatest" and may see Lena Horne as one of Hollywood's most beautiful celebrities, their gifts did not protect them racism. Each of the individuals featured in Let Your Motto Be Resistance faced injustice

Unlike Without Sanctuary, these are not difficult pictures to view. The portraits are rather idealized and in some cases glamorize the individual. In fact, they look much like promotional shots of each of the individuals. The viewer must read the labels to learn and understand these as examples of resistance. And here may be where the Smithsonian exhibit may run into a problem.

Directors of the collaborating museums claim the following:

“As we examined the photographs that comprise this exhibition, it was clear that they revealed, reflected and illuminated the variety of creative and courageous ways that African Americans resisted, accommodated, redefined and struggled in an America that needed, but rarely embraced and accepted its black citizens,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Powerful in its depiction of African American resistance, this exhibition speaks on a global level,” says Freedom Center CEO Donald W. Murphy.

While I agree the lives of the individuals depicted in the exhibition represent courage almost impossible to measure, the photographs themselves do not represent this at all. These photographs do not tell the story of resistance. These are beautiful photographs of successful people, most of whom are recognizable celebrities. What is creative is the way this inaugural exhibition of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture tries to redefine images of 150 years of African American resistance in the U.S. Not included are photographs of actual resistance.

The exhibition goal to present new or more diverse images of resistance seems to flirt with rewriting of history of racism and failing to acknowledge contemporary racist tendencies. Bailey admits when she initially saw the collection group Muhammad Ali with the Activists, she thought it best to present him with the other athletes. Despite Ali's resistance to the Vietnam War and the anger people had toward him and Muslims, the curator felt this current grouping was more in line with how people think about Ali today. Further, within moments of entering the gallery, I noticed the largest of the categories was "Performers and Athletes." The smallest, "Writers and Intellectuals."

In the past few years speech writers and others have quickly adopted the saying "A Time to Move Forward." This contemporary motto has been embraced as an anti-historical approach to the most challenging issues. It permits us to wipe our slates clean and ignore our past wrongdoings. The Smithsonian is known for painting a pretty picture on our past. Unless the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center works hard to create programming courageous enough to honestly reveal and celebrate historical and contemporary acts of resistance, Henry Highland Garnet's call will not be heard.

Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will be on view until June 19.


Roderick Vesper said...

I haven't seen this show, so I am coming from an uninformed position, so keep that in mind. But my questions is this: Is it possible that the idea of being portrayed in an idealized way, was in itself a form of resistance? Seeing them in a contemporary setting may not be jarring, but imagine the impact that would have at the time (I may be incorrectly assuming that these are photos coming from the time of said resistance.)

Again, I haven't seen the show, so maybe I need to before I can raise such questions.

Me said...

Thanks for your comment.

I think I understand what you mean.

I think these were always promotional or idealized photos and perhaps at the time they were shot, they offer perhaps rarely seen images of successful African Americans. Though I am not sure they were ever viewed as images of resistance....and argue the viewer is hard-pressed to see them this way today.

And as I mention in my review, I concede the individuals provide examples of resistance. (only if you know or read their bios on the labels) Though I maintain that the photos themselves don't present the history of resistance.

When I walked through the gallery, it was like flipping through an Annie Leibowitz book of photos.

I hope you do visit. And if you do, let me know what you think.

Stephanie A. Creech said...

I am very familiar with this exhibit, obviously. I am suggesting that the success of these individuals, and the capturing of it on film, serve to beautifully illustrate the outcomes of said resistance. What's more, the shaping of themselves - the re-defining or re-branding if you will - is itself a form of resistance. In each case, rather than allow themselves and their talents to be ignored, they resisted. They refused to be silenced.They overcame. They achieved their individual and rightful greatness, as illustrated in these photos, despite all of the many obstacles. I believe, whole-heartedly, these photos represent not only resistance, but also the three core values of the Freedom Center: Courage, Cooperation and Perseverence.

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