The Palo Alto Art Center exhibition celebrates unknown heroes, unseen victims and the artists who bring them to life.
By Sheryl Nonnenberg
When printed photographs became available to the public in the mid-19th century, the phrase “the camera never lies” was coined, largely because the photograph was considered a faithful representation; a precise and infallible record of persons or events. We now know that the medium of photography is open to any number of manipulations and distortions. The current exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, “The Black Index,” seeks to, according to a press release, “question our reliance on photography as a privileged source for documentary objectivity and understanding,” especially as it pertains to Black subjects.
The show, guest-curated by Bridget Cooks, an associate professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California, Irvine, consists of the work of six Black artists working in a variety of media. The exhibition could not be more timely, but it was actually planned several years ago. Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle and Cooks were former colleagues at Santa Clara University. When Kienzle heard about the exhibition, and the fact that it would be available to travel, she immediately sought to have it shown in Palo Alto.
“We knew this show would be important, but the reckoning around race and equity that took place over the past year made it more important than ever,” Kienzle said. “The presentation of the exhibition coincided with the release of the City of Palo Alto Human Relations Commission’s report on the experiences of Black and brown people in Palo Alto and their subsequent focus on facilitating 100 conversations on race in the community.”
Cooks said the inspiration for the exhibition came in 2017 when she first saw a work by artist Whitfield Lovell. Here, he is represented by “The Card Pieces,” executed in charcoal pencil on paper. These 24 portraits of ordinary, working-class men and women are beautifully rendered and very expressive. At the bottom of the portrait an actual playing card has been affixed, perhaps to make a statement about how our lives are often impacted by the luck of the draw. In the accompanying wall label, Lovell stated that he wanted to portray Black Americans like everyone else because, “They have lives, hopes and dreams. They have families.”
Also included in the main gallery is the work of Bay Area artist Lava Thomas. In 2018, she did a series of 12 portraits entitled “Mugshots: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Three of these large-scale drawings, made with graphite and Conté crayon on paper, are included here. Thomas was taken by the fact that women were, in large part, responsible for the organization behind the famous boycott. Although Rosa Parks is well-known for the stance she took, Thomas wanted to celebrate the other women who worked quietly and effectively behind the scenes. Many of them, she said, had long histories of activism and, when they were arrested, wanted to “take control of their representation” by formally dressing for their mugshots.
These carefully drawn portraits, which took more than three years to complete, portray the women with proud and defiant expressions. Thomas explained that the choice to use pencil on paper (a very laborious process) was deliberate because, “The act of drawing is accessible; everyone has used a pencil and paper. My drawing technique is detailed and precise — each pencil stroke is visible — which draws the viewer in and invites them to look closely.”
The decision to make the drawings slightly larger than life-size was also a conscious one because, “hung at eye level, it allows the viewer to have a one-to-one engagement with them.” There is a feeling of connection made with these three women that would not have been the same with a black-and-white photograph. Thomas added, “My objective was also to take the mugshot, a photograph designed to depict criminality, and transform it into a commemorative portrait, lovingly created, to honor the labor and leadership of these women.”
Thomas’ work can also be seen in the adjacent Glass Gallery, where her “Looking Back 1” portraits are installed. This is an ongoing project for the artist, inspired by an archive of family photographs. These depictions of women, some in formal attire, are framed within cameos, which the artist explained was a common device for early 20th-century portraits. In these works, Thomas said that she wanted to honor “the resilience of my ancestors and women in the South.” Their direct gaze and quiet, calm dignity mask the often difficult and troubling conditions that hallmarked the time in which they lived. As she became more aware of their life stories, Thomas was compelled to pay tribute to “what these women witnessed, what they had seen and what they had to endure.”
Another Bay Area artist in the show is Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, who, in 2016, read a statistic that roughly 64,000 Black women were reported as missing by the Black & Missing Foundation. She decided to bring attention to this through a series of “unportraits.” Executed in India ink and watercolor, these small drawings are ethereal abstractions rather than realistic renderings. Hinkle explained that “each figure has been channeled and stands in a representation of unfathomable loss.” Since the fate of the women is unknown, Hinkle refers to their status as “evanesced” because there may never be documentation of their presence, similar to enslaved individuals from The Middle Passage. The way she chose to execute these unportraits is unique: She made handmade brushes from branches, plant fibers and other material she found in the woods. “I make handmade brushes to honor the inventiveness of my ancestors who used their intuition to fashion tools for survival even under the most brutal circumstances,” Hinkle said.
Cooks hopes that by presenting the exhibition in a largely white, wealthy demographic like Palo Alto, viewers will see that, “Black people have value. We are not disposable. We are more than something to be feared. We are beautiful and complex. We live, we feel joy and sorrow. We resist confinement and will be part of the future. This may be news for mainly white viewers. For Black people, the exhibition will be a validation.”
“The Black Index” also includes work by Dennis Delgado, Alicia Henry and Titus Kaphar.
Kaphar and San Jose artist Diana Pumpelly Bates will join Cooks for an online conversation on Black creativity and the importance of mentorship on July 16 at noon.
The exhibition is on view through Aug. 14 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at cityofpaloalto.org.
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