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Collective Memories At Amistad Center

Exhibit Of Images Of Blacks In America Divided Into 'People,' 'Places,' 'Things


May 13, 2012

The historical collection at the Amistad Center for Art & Culture was begun by Randolph Linsley Simpson, who collected, according to Olivia White, "anything with a black face on it": photos, newspapers, books, paintings, artifacts, etc. But White, the director of the center, said Simpson considered the items in his collection to be more than just things.

"The collection shows not just individual items, but a pattern of how societal concepts of race and culture may be produced, distributed and retained," White said. "It traces a history."

One hundred fifty noteworthy pieces from the Amistad's inventory which has grown from Simpson's artifacts to now number 6,000 items are on exhibit now at the Hartford museum.

"Collective Memories" is the first of a two-pronged exhibit, and features items illustrating African-American history from the 17th to early 20th centuries, and will be on the walls of the center's two galleries until Sunday, Sept. 23. The second segment, "Contemporary Memories," focusing on early 20th to 21st centuries, opens on Saturday, Oct. 27, and will be up until Saturday, April 20, 2013. The two exhibits are being held in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Amistad Center in 1987.

Alona Wilson, the assistant director of the center and curator of the exhibit, divided the displays into three categories: "People," "Places" and "Things." "People" is dominated by studio portraits of African Americans, some photographed by white photographers and some by black photographers, as well as photos of white Americans photographed by prominent black portrait photographers such as John Presley Ball, Addison Scurlock and Hartford's Augustus Washington.

"People tend to assume that if a photo from that era is of a black person, it's by a black photographer, and if it's of a white person, it's by a white photographer," Wilson said. "But you don't know that. John Presley Ball in Cincinnati, for example, had a large client base of anti-slavery and abolitionist whites."

One interesting photo, by the legendary Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, is of an elderly Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the confederacy, with a black attendant by his side.

The "Places" segment is dominated by newspaper clippings, paintings and art prints showing African Americans at work and at home, pre- and post-Civil War. Also shown is work by black artists such as Ellis Walter Ruley, whose painting of six white women picking grapefruits hangs alongside Ruley's painting of a black family traveling.

Some of the art prints depict blacks, alone and dejected, struggling with new lifestyles. "The Civil War acts as a foil to the price of freedom," Wilson said. "This is not to say that you don't want to be free, but if you are free and move on, you have things behind, people and places that are familiar to you. That's the price of freedom."

The corner of "Places" emphasizing African Americans at work shows workers on wharves, fields and other places, roping cattle, hoeing rice, working with metal.

"The usual depiction is of cotton fields, and we have those, but African Americans worked in all fields," she said. "In fact, African Americans did almost all of the manual labor back then, so after the war, they were the only people who knew how to do things. What they didn't have was education."

The "Things" exhibit has an intriguing mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery books, crockery embossed with images of African American families, shakles once owned by British anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce, a bizarre-looking pipe whose bowl is shaped as the head of a black man, and a mix of items that resemble and at times are identical to the items currently on display at the Mark Twain House & Museum's "Hateful Things" exhibit of racist memorabilia. These post-Reconstruction era racist images gradually morph into depictions of black middle-class life and the rise of black intelligentsia such as Frederick Douglass.

"This exhibit tell the story of lives and their connection to the history of a whole country," Wilson said. "They speak of the tremendous ability of African Americans to surpass the issue of race and enslavement to contribute to society as living, breathing human beings."

COLLECTIVE MEMORIES: SELECTIONS FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE AMISTAD CENTER FOR ART & CULTURE will be on display through Sunday, Sept. 23 at the Amistad Center, which is inside the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford. Details: http://www.amistadartandculture.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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