As a corrective to histories that define slavery and anti-Black racism as a largely Southern issue, this exhibition offers a new window onto Black representation in a region that is often overlooked in narratives of early African American history. Through over 70 remarkable works including paintings, needlework, and works on paper, Unnamed Figures explores the untold stories of Black experience behind the art of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Black figures seldom appear in American art of the 18th and early 19th centuries. When represented, they are typically placed in secondary positions, often going unnamed. This exhibition and the accompanying book trouble traditional narratives by inviting new considerations of old images, positioning the “unnamed figure” as the principal subject of inquiry. While such artworks simultaneously revealed and perpetuated the marginalization of African American life at the time of their creation, our presentation invites contemporary viewers to reorient their focus on the Black figures who appear in—or are omitted from—these early American images.
Images (L to R): Nancy Lawson, William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) / courtesy of American Folk Art Museum; William Lawson, William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) / courtesy of American Folk Art Museum