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San Diego Museum of Art lecture explores origins of racism through historical art

"Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley" (detail), 1797, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Triosson. Oil on canvas.
Art historian Lisa Farrington will present “The World Before Racism: An Art Story,” a virtual lecture with the San Diego Museum of Art, highlighting works like this piece, “Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley” (1797, oil on canvas by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Triosson).
(Provided by San Diego Museum of Art via Chateau de Versailles)

Art historian Lisa Farrington, of Howard University, will talk about how art can tell us about the origins of anti-Black racism in a virtual lecture through the San Diego Museum of Art on May 20

The ways that art, history and race intersect can be so provocative that art historian Lisa Farrington once had to be escorted out of one of her lectures by security because of how intensely the audience responded to her research about the ways that Black people have been portrayed in historical works of art.

She first became interested in this area of art history after reading about these portrayals in pop culture and in history, particularly in the Harvard University Press series “The Image of the Black in Western Art.”

“I noticed that Europeans portrayed Black people very differently before 1750. The stereotypes didn’t show up until quite late in our history,” she says. “I wanted to figure out why, so I started researching and put together a class for my Parsons (School of Design) students based on these (and other) readings.”

That original, 15-week class has been requested as a one-hour lecture over the years, and Farrington will be presenting that research again, virtually, at 10 a.m. Friday in “The World Before Racism: An Art Story” with the San Diego Museum of Art. In it, she’ll use original artwork from ancient Greece through the 20th century to explore questions about anti-Black racism, its origins, who’s responsible, and why.

Farrington, associate dean of fine arts and director of the Howard University Gallery of Art, earned her doctorate in art history from City University of New York and has written numerous essays and books, including “African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History,” “Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists” and “Art on Fire: The Politics of Race and Sex in the Paintings of Faith Ringgold.” She took some time to talk about her upcoming lecture and why she finds original, visual works of art to be more truthful depictions of history than the writings we typically rely on. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: You’ve written numerous academic articles and books over the years. What have these works revealed to you about the ways that we see and understand ourselves? How we understand identity and what that means?

A: If you look at art about people of color that’s made by White people, it doesn’t look truthful. It’s Black people seen through the eyes of a White artist. (This is post-slavery; before slavery was a different thing). If you really want to learn about a culture, you need to look at the art that is made by that culture. Black people make art about themselves that is, obviously, more truthful, more honest, more expressive of their reality because it’s their reality. It’s the same with women artists. When men paint women, you see these images through the man’s eyes, and they look stereotypical. The woman is lounging on a sofa or whatever, and doing nothing. But if you take an artist like Faith Ringgold, who painted nude Black women, they have weapons in their hands and they’re running around, full of energy. They’re pregnant and still running around and full of energy. Art is a language that tells us about a group of people, but it depends on who the group of people are, who made the art, and who the people are who are subjects of the art.

Q: In your upcoming lecture with the San Diego Museum of Art, you’ll talk about “The World Before Racism: An Art Story.” Where did this question come from for you? What prompted you to look at tracing the origins of racism through artistic creations?

A: As a Black woman, I’ve always been invested in concepts of race and racism as a problem. I think, in the ‘90s, I read a book looking at pop culture images of Black people in advertising in the early 20th century, late-19th century, where Black Sambos and stereotypical characters were used on packaging, like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. The book got me thinking about how Black people are portrayed in our recent century. Then, I read a series called “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” and I noticed that Europeans portrayed Black people very differently before 1750. The stereotypes didn’t show up until quite late in our history. I wanted to figure out why, so I started researching and put together a class for my Parsons students based on these readings, and I started reading other things.

The original Greek story of Andromeda, for example, says very clearly that Andromeda was African, but nobody knows that because nobody reads the original because who reads ancient Greek? A second thing that occurred to me was that written history is less truthful than art history because written history is constantly being rewritten. With the Greek myths from 500 or 800 BCE, the original work is unknown to people in our age because nobody reads the original. They just see it translated into movies, like “Clash of the Titans” and big, blockbuster movies where all of the characters are White because everybody thinks all Greeks were White, but all Greeks were not White. All Romans were not White. If you read the stories, the Greek myths, the word “African” is removed from a lot of the translations, so you don’t get a sense that ancient Greece was multiracial. In my arrogance as an art historian, I concluded that you can’t do that with a work of art. If you could see a work of art, it’s the same work of art that was created 3,000 years ago. Art is filled with information, much more than a book, if you know how to read it.

The way that racist history books have changed art is by not showing the art. There’s art that shows Black people were part of Greek society, and that art stays in the basement of a museum, and it’s not on display. It doesn’t show up in books; the art is there to tell the truth, but nobody gets to see it. “The Image of the Black in Western Art” that Harvard produced, got funding to send art historians around the world to try and find artworks that are in storage in museums and not on display. So, I put together a class that went from era to era, starting with ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, medieval times, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Right around the Baroque era, which was between 1550 to 1750, that was the last time where Black people were portrayed by White artists as superstars. They were really enamored of Black culture.

Then, I was asked to take this class, which takes 15 weeks to teach, and to condense it down into a one-hour talk for CUNY. I found lots of other proof about the way Black people were perceived by Europeans in original literature. In particular, a story written around the same time as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was the second most popular book of the Middle Ages, “Parzival.” That book was popular and it was about brothers, one brother was White and one was Black. They had the same father and different mothers. They were heroes and that book, probably because it was so popular, has survived into the 21st century. There are still original copies that exist in various libraries. You can also buy a translation of it; it’s a pretty famous medieval story about the Holy Grail.

The other thing I researched was Charles Darwin. He is credited with racist theories, which he, in fact, did not develop. Again, nobody reads Darwin. He is quoted as saying “survival of the fittest,” which is the mantra of racists for centuries, and he never said that at all. In fact, he said several things that were the opposite of that. He said that he admitted that he hardly knew any Africans, and the ones that he met were highly intelligent. I was curious to find exactly what he actually had to say about Black people because I had so much secondary information in my head, and I didn’t want to teach the class without knowing exactly what he said, so I just got the 1,000-page book [“On The Origin of Species”] and plowed through it, and he didn’t say any of that. He talked almost exclusively about animal species. Common traits versus rare traits and how species with rarer traits are on the edge of extinction, over millennia; that the only species that survive are those that adapt to a changing environment; and that species that only mate within the same gene pool become weak and, eventually, extinct. Most of the things Darwin said were the opposite of racist. I needed to find out how we came to know Darwin as the father of racism. There was a social scientist named [Herbert] Spencer who wrote a book where he claims that White people were the most fit to survive, and that’s where it came from. Somebody else twisted Darwin’s research all around and then fed it to the public, secondhand.

That brings me to my final point: Secondhand knowledge is never the truth. If you want to find out the truth, you have to go to the primary source. That is, Darwin’s original writing, not Spencer’s convoluted version of it. The original Greek of “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” not the Hollywood movie version. Secondary sources are usually flawed, and that makes works of art primary sources because nobody has changed them, nobody’s resculpted them, they are the original document. Looking at artworks, to me, is a much more accurate way of reading history than reading any kind of book, even though I write books [laughs].

Q: What would you say art has been able to tell us about race that academic, scholarly books or articles have not?

A: The truth. Academic and scholarly books are rehashings of primary sources, which is why all of those books have 500 footnotes at the end. The footnotes will eventually lead you back to the original document, but if you’re not reading the original document, you’re reading the opinion of the writer. Art doesn’t give you the opinion of somebody who saw the work of art. Art is telling you exactly what the maker had to say.

Q: Why is art a useful lens through which to gain an understanding of race and racism?

A: The other thing is that most of what we know about the ancient world, we know through their art, the pyramids, sculptures, the buildings because the books don’t survive unless they’re carved in stone. Like the cuneiform writings of Hammurabi, they’re in stone, so we have that book, but all other books are written, translated, rewritten. There are 18 versions of the Bible, there’s four versions of the gospel. I mean, four guys who were there couldn’t get the story straight. The writing is not reliable. Art is always reliable.

Q: The title of your San Diego presentation reminds me of Nell Irvin Painter’s book, “The History of White People.” In it, she talks about the social construction of Whiteness, and race, as an ideology developed during the 18th century, as opposed to a biological reality that has always existed. That people chose to identify and group ourselves by commonalities like religion, location, tribe, or other markers we found more meaningful and relevant. I’m curious about what you’ve found in your study of art, along these lines. Where these identity classifications and understandings move into skin color, and why? What does the art tell us about how and why?

A: I don’t want to give away the whole lecture, but the talk will tell you exactly when racism against people of color, particularly people with dark skin, started. That, of course, coincides with the book you just mentioned, which is the 18th century. That’s a very short time ago. Now, White people are going to read “The History of White People” and they’re going to say “[expletive]” if they’re racist because what proof is there in the book? You can’t convince somebody who’s racist, with words, because they’re a writer’s words. Whatever original documents she may or may not refer back to, aren’t in the book. My goal is to convince the unconvinceable, the diehard racists, that racism is a construct and it’s a recently evolved one. I don’t have to say much because the art speaks for itself. Every work of art I show, almost, is created by a famous White person, people who worked for the courts and the kings and the queens. Every literary work I refer to is original, so the talk goes specifically through 1750 to 1850. The talk tells you exactly which gentlemen in Europe invented racism and exactly why it was necessary. That was related to the slave trade, and it didn’t start when slavery started because it wasn’t necessary. Black slavery started in the early 1500s and as long as slavery was accepted by most people, there was no need to vilify the slave. Once people started to wonder whether or not slavery was an evil practice, then you needed a reason to convince those people that it’s OK, and the reason would be that the people we’re enslaving are terrible. That’s where stereotypes become necessary, so it was only at the end of slavery that racism, the type that we understand today against Black people, started. That was essentially a propaganda campaign to convince abolitionists that they didn’t need to end slavery.

Q: What can people expect to hear and learn from your presentation Friday? What do you hope they come away with understanding? What perspective do you hope they gain?

A: I hope they learn and come away knowing for certain that racism was made up, is a recently constructed ideology, and that it will pass just like everything does. I’ve given this talk to a room full of racists, and I had to get escorted out of the room by a guard because they went berserk. When people are faced with a truth that they can’t refute, it just pulls their hearts right out of their chests in terms of them not being able to deny what they’re seeing. One elderly, White gentleman who thought he was very liberal and open-minded said that after he heard the talk, he walked three to four blocks in the wrong direction before he realized he wasn’t going toward his apartment because he was thinking about everything he had heard and seen. He was realizing that everything he had believed wasn’t true, and that’s really hard to accept. Then, I gave that talk to an all-Black audience in Atlanta, and they were on their feet, cheering and clapping when it was over because it was proof that all of this is just nonsense. And it will fade.

Q: What would you say art today is telling us about race and identity?

A: I guess it depends on who’s making it. I’m not a contemporary art expert, I am an art historian, so I like to look at art of the past. I can say that one of the recent movements in Black art, called Afrofuturism, is all about eliminating the fact of slavery from the conversation and asking what our world would look like today if African slavery had never happened? Wouldn’t it be beautiful? So, Afrofuturism is a very optimistic fantasy world and worlds without racism, like the Netflix show “Bridgerton.” Essentially, what contemporary Black artists are saying is that they are dreaming of a better world for Black people, where racism doesn’t play a part. They’re hoping for it, it’s an unusually optimistic art movement right now. Like, “Black Panther.” What might we have done? How would our world look if we had never been enslaved? That’s one of the things that makes “Black Panther” so attractive, is it completely eliminates the history of slavery from anything to do with the storyline.


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