Exhibition: Unseen: Our Past in a New Light

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)

Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history.  The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.

In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!).

Columbus Day Painting by Titus Kaphar (2014)

Columbus Day Painting. Kaphar’s reinterpretation of John Vanderlyn’s (1775-1852) painting Landing of Columbus (1846) disrupts a romanticized, heroic narrative of Christopher Columbus and those who traveled with him on the flagship Santa Maria. In the original painting, the colonizers are shown wearing ornate European dress, and the experiences of indigenous people are consigned to the margins. By shrouding the figures in the foreground with raw canvas, Kaphar dismantles the power dynamic and accentuates the presence of the natives. 

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Deconstructed Portraits. What can a portrait tell us about social codes, stature, and power? The works in this gallery show how Titus Kaphar manipulates the rules of portraiture to expose the marginalization of African Americans. he emulates, in painstaking detail, the fashion, settings, and poses of historical Anglo-European portraits but chooses African Americans as his subjects. He then assaults these paints through physical interventions, enacting a powerful critique of how so many African Americans have been literally left unseen in traditional museums and art historical narratives. 

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Absence. The wall of this gallery are teeming with people: men in suits and hats, children looking perplexed, soldiers smiling broadly. Gathering in plain daylight or at night, in arid landscapes or against lush backdrops, many of them stand near a tree that hints at the sinister motivation for each meeting. / Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series derives, for the most part, from historic photographs and prints of lynchings that took place in the United States between 1850 and 1942. The artist appropriates these images, once sold as souvenirs, and uses editing software to erase the victims and direct the viewer’s attention to the bystanders.

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Naming. The naming of territories and their inhabitants is commonly associated with power and colonialism, and so it is most often the victors who crowd—or cloud—our collective memory. The photographs in this gallery ask us to consider, and reconsider, who has made history. / Arranged in a group composition, busts and life masks of presidents, military men, industrialists, scientists, and artists—all from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery—are seen in relation to individual busts of Native Americans from the National Museum of Natural History. The latter were made from living Native Americans, under the direction of Smithsonian anthropologists while they conducted field research or met with Native American delegates in Washington. The casts, originally created to illustrate the differences between Europ-American and Native American facial features, were used in exhibits at the Smithsonian. 

Untitled by Ken Gonzales-Day (2009)