Seeing the "UnSeen" (Art Exhibition Review)

A short while ago I was downtown in DC with some time to kill, so I wandered into the National Portrait Gallery about an hour before they closed. I slipped into one of the small galleries on the first floor and on-display was a figurative portraiture exhibition by Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day entitled, “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light.” I immediately knew I had to write a review about it, so here it is: (for the purpose of this article I will only be commenting on works by Titus Kaphar).


The subject matter of this exhibition highlighted the exploration of relationships between “portraiture, nation building, and museum practice.” It focused on how, during the construction of a new nation, communities of color are consistently left out of sight or are represented by images that are limiting and lacking in true depth or humanity. This erasure leaves POC’s contributions out of history books and causes their voices and needs to be ignored in legal and economic structures. The two pieces visible to viewers when they first enter the gallery from the hallway are Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar and Ona Judge Portrait in Tar. By presenting these right off the bat, Kaphar is defying the traditional portrait painting principles by covering the faces in tar - dehumanizing them.


Billy Lee and Ona Judge were both enslaved people of African descent living and working on George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. Both of these people were also what is referred to as “mulatto” or of mixed race. The historical context combined with the viscous tar smeared across their faces tugged my mind into a million directions. Each facet acted as a montage of disturbing stories and facts I have learned throughout years of research. After letting these thoughts run through my mind I realized that those images have already been seen and written about, and the purpose of this exhibition was to emphasize figures we wouldn’t recognize such as Billy Lee and Ona Judge who, after doing research, I learned lived incredible, widely unknown lives.


Billy Lee was George Washington’s right hand man and one of the biggest reasons GW changed his stance on slavery, making a commitment to no longer buy or sell enslaved people nor separate enslaved families (Note: In no way, shape, or form am I giving GW a pass for his part in slavery. Instead I am highlighting the fact that Billy Lee must have had some important conversations with him in-order to play such a large role in altering his beliefs).


Now, Ona Judge… She was a ‘G’ (or “gangsta” in the figurative contemporary meaning of the word, or the letter I suppose). The documentation of her story reads, she escaped slavery by simply walking out of the house while the Washington family was eating dinner. She literally decided she’d had enough of that sh*t and B O U N C E D. A little backstory on her: she was about 10 years old when GW became President. As President, he acquired additional properties in different states in order for him to handle presidential business. In his out-of-state properties he brought along with him some of the enslaved people he owned - Ona Judge was one of those people. So, throughout her time in servitude, she spent time in New York and Pennsylvania where she was exposed to free Blacks (something that most enslaved people never had the opportunity or the access to see).


It makes sense that after seeing people who looked like her living freely, Ona Judge couldn’t go back to life as she knew it. She escaped from the Washington’s Pennsylvania plantation and headed to New Hampshire where she lived free until she died. She taught herself how to read and write, and even gave interviews about her life to newspapers, which in that day in age could be considered the equivalent to a tell-all book.


The next portrait I want to talk about is Veiled Before Waking. Judging by her clothing and heroic posture on the horse, I assumed this figure was a woman who at some point was enslaved, but somehow managed to change her life and end it on a different note - much like Ona Judge. When I think of heroism combined with “veiled”, or a disguise, I think of Harriet Tubman, a spy, and Nat Turner who secretly organized the largest revolt of enslaved people in North America. But the word “veil” stood out to me and I thought about the statue of Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee entitled, “Lifting the Veil”. There is a connection there because part of Booker T. Washington’s story is often overlooked. He is most well-known for being “The Great Accommodator” and many people disagree with his public philosophies that Blacks of that time should accept segregation and second-class citizenship. He preached that Blacks should focus on pursuing more “practical” skills such as farming - something I imagine that is what many of his white funders at the time wanted to hear. Unbenounced to them, Washington was taking their money and funding groups that were actually working towards ending segregation. He also used their funding to build schools and help develop the National Negro Business League. So, he had to wear a mask (or veil of sorts) and play his cards right, working towards freedom in a fashion he thought was most effective. Although there was no context provided for this particular piece, the lack of specificity produced a variety of connections, which I imagine was relevant to what Kaphar was attempting to uncover with this piece.


The next piece I will review is “The Fight for Remembrance.” This powerful figure was created with a fine-tuned face accompanied by a complex, abstract body that is outlined in a way that makes it almost traceable. This painting has a very obvious duality, one being literal - that of Black servitude in the military, the other being more abstract - fighting for recognition and/or appreciation, or even just the Black struggle in-general.


This piece touches on the fact that most stories of major Black military leaders and players in North American warfare go untold in the dominant US history we’re taught. Examples include: Jean-Jacque Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture in Haiti or Gaspar Yanga in Mexico. Even major African leaders’ stories are often overlooked, such as King Menelik II who lead the army that kept current-day Ethiopia from being conquered by the Italian army.


The last piece I want to mention is called “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” with an enslaved Black woman behind a curtain with Thomas Jefferson’s face on it. In this painting Kaphar does an amazing job illustrating this woman, capturing her trauma and strength throughout her face and body language. Jefferson raped and abused many of the Black women he owned, often treating them as concubines. Although the painting serves as a reminder to all of us to never let prestige and accomplishment overshadow the atrocities committed by powerful people throughout our country’s history, it really focuses on the woman in the background and how she will largely go unseen, her story unheard. The victims of many powerful, well-known people are regularly and intentionally buried, especially when the victims are Black women. We are finally seeing a shift in culture now where women (and men in some cases) are being empowered to share their stories, though we still have a long way to go.


Hats off to Titus Kaphar for an unbelievably fascinating exhibition. It has taken years of research to be able to connect with an exhibition on such a deep level. I was so excited to review this exhibition because it really put my knowledge to the test. I hope you enjoyed reading this, half as much as I enjoyed writing it. Let me know what you think!

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