WPCNR ART IN TIME.Exhibition Review by John F. Bailey, March 2, 2024:
The name of the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York is provocative. It stuns you.:
Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North
Evocative. Eternal. Visceral. Disbelief.
With every painting by unknown and known black artists of America’s first two centuries, every sculpture, every photograph and painted landscapes of young growing America the roles of northern slaves are witnessed in heartbreaking, somber testimony in the works of those black artists who lived, painted, photographed, sculpted as slaves and freedmen and women in the American North.
As you wonder through the dark halls that evoke a dignified mausoleum dedicated to artists lost, their talents exploited by northern slaveowners in the 1700s and 1800s leading up to and beyond the Civil War.
The ambitious curation of this exhibition is on view through March 24 at 2 Lincoln Square on 66th Street, West of Central Park. It is a visit to the past you will never forget.
I have not been so jarred by an exhibition since I saw the slave hut on Andrew Jackson’s estate in Nashville, a slave quarters that housed 19 slaves in ramshackle structure the size of a studio apartment.
Unnamed Figures brings back to life the long dead slaves who endured the cruelty of slavery in the “abolitionist” north to tell the truth through their art that has lived on to tell their stories.
This exhibit opened my eyes about slavery in the northeast. the paintings,sculptures and photographs haunt you at every step, putting a real face on real slaves and freemen and women in the 19th century. it was never taught to me in the history classes of high school, how widespread slavery was in the north as well as the south.
This exhibition will make you linger, think, feel deeply or ever so slightly the wrongs, the diminution of black talent.
Other than the hard unpaid brutal living and working for nothing, I was shocked by the slave owners’ shameful exploitation of slaves who were artists in spare time, artists many of home photographed and painted portraits of their owners and the owners’ friends and the owners pocketed the fees the artists’ works.
In the elegant somber texts explaining paintings, portraits and photographs, you learn how paintings of blacks promoted in the north the inferiority of blacks who are shown looking up to their master owners in portraits.
George Washington and Family with Slave in background by an artist who was a slave.
Many of those paintings for fees that slave owners kept are on display here. as a writer myself i can feel that injustice. All pride in the work is diminished when you are not paid for it and your owner keeps your fee.
The exhibition offers a new window onto black representation in a region that is often overlooked in narratives of early African American history.
Through 125 remarkable works including paintings, needlework, and photographs, this exhibition invites visitors to focus on figures who appear in—or are omitted from—early american images and will challenge conventional narratives that have minimized early black histories in the north, revealing the complexities and contradictions of the region’s history between the late 1600s and early 1800s.
If you are black. this is a must-see exhibition and your pride will be uplifted.
If you are white, it will open your eyes, touch your heart, sadden and cleanse your soul.
Unamed Figures is art performing its mission profoundly and effectively, eternally.
I recommend it!