Antonio McAfee explores representation, blackness, and history through altered portraits from 1900's 'Exhibition of the American Negro'
By By Brandon Block
Jul 26, 2017 | 12:40 PM
'Young African American woman, three-quarter length portrait, standing facing slightly right, with left hand on back of chair' is an image of a small girl wearing a ruffled white dress. It's a glossy photo, and layered on top of it are red and blue silhouettes of her in a different pose. It's as if she is at once alive and merely a memory, a ghostly presence transitioning between states. The photo is very real, but it has been digitally manipulated by artist Antonio McAfee as part of his solo exhibition "Through The Layers, Pt. 1," which runs through July 29 at Terrault Contemporary and uses digital aesthetics and traditional portraiture as tools to dive into ideas about blackness, representation, and history.
The show consists of a series of century-old portraits of African-Americans that McAfee has digitally altered, the figures duplicated in holograms and tinged with red and blue hues layered on top of each other. On the surface, they appear like ghostly double-exposures, but put on a pair of 3-D glasses (provided by the gallery) and the discrete red and blue figures separate from each other, depending on which eye you look through. The effect, which McAfee repeats 12 times on 12 different photographs, adds a glitchy, ethereal flourish, resulting in something like a collage of one person split into three selves.
The photos are taken from the "Exhibition of the American Negro" at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. Commissioned by the Library of Congress and organized by W.E.B. Du Bois and black lawyer Thomas Calloway in conjunction with HBCUs, it showcased artifacts of African-American life and the achievements of black Americans, including books by black authors, magazines, maps, patents, musical scores, and about 500 photographs.
The photos McAfee has reproduced here are all formal studio portraits of upper-class black men, women, and children. If you hold the red side of the 3-D glasses up and cover one eye, you can see the portraits mostly unaltered, as they were displayed in Paris at the very beginning of the 20th century.
Looking at the portraits, Du Bois' optimism is visible in the faces that look just past the camera or off into the distance, staring down both the promise and the danger of the coming century. It's tempting to keep looking through the red half of the glasses and imagine how these people may have felt—wedged into the precarious cosmic spot of representing an entire race of people stuck in a nation that as of yet has done nothing but spurn and abuse them. The people in these photos have succeeded, despite all odds, in clawing their way up a social structure rigged against them—what Du Bois called the "talented tenth" of African-Americans who would lead the movement for civil rights.
Du Bois, trained as a sociologist, had an ambitious goal for the exhibit: He wanted not only to document African-American life and showcase the progress made by black Americans since the end of slavery (only 35 years prior), but furthermore to portray black people honestly, to counter the racist stereotypes of African-Americans that dominated mass media. Most American newspapers ignored it, while covering the rest of the Paris fair extensively.
Now in 2017, I'm looking at 'General,' a portrait of a man with neatly parted hair and a large and bushy, yet equally neat mustache. He wears a tie tucked into a closed jacket and looks out with an expression of kind seriousness, like one of Rembrandt's portraits of 17th century Dutch traders. He's not smiling, exactly, so much as looking pleasantly approving in the way a small business owner does.
The word that comes to mind with this portrait is respectability—a fraught word because of its implication on how black people should look and act in order to appeal to whites—but Du Bois' charge of a corrective narrative through which to view black people was revolutionary in this context. McAfee's present alterations to the image offer a chance to revisit that legacy and aim to open up new possible narratives— "alternate ways to see black figures," as he writes, that are "less static and more inexplicable."
In the corner of the small room that houses Terrault—on the third floor of the large, historic Maryland Art Place—there's a small nook where McAfee has covered the walls with a red and blue fractal patterning. It gives the area a psychedelic flavor. Flipping the 3-D glasses on and off and switching eyes from red to blue, you can toggle the reversed image (the same effect as when iPhones flip your face in a selfie), often a fainter hologram of the original. 'Woman in Glow BW' depicts a baby-faced woman with prematurely white hair, but her reversed image is in full opacity, so that she appears to have two heads and three eyes.
This is not how we typically look at history—colorized and glitched out—but beyond that, the Photoshop-aesthetic conceit leaves much unexplored. Each photo is altered in much the same way, and the repetition of the idea doesn't hold up for a whole exhibit. One of these pictures would say the same thing as 12 do.
'Woman in Glow' is a more colorful version of the aforementioned photo, with splotches of red color phased onto her left half, and blue on her right. A lone, cyclopean eye parks itself in a sliver of grayscale between the red and blue. It feels all knowing, like on the one-dollar bill. Like a great album cover or poster, McAfee's digitally manipulated portraits are intriguing as a teaser for something further that is missing here. The works pose interesting questions, for instance, about how images shape our understanding of history, but don't fully explore them. McAfee's title provocatively points out that black and white Americans are often viewed through a different "layer," and this doesn't seem too far from critiques of news stories using mug shots of black victimsbut not white assailants.
It's not yet clear what McAfee means in calling this show "Part 1," but to his credit, it implies a self-awareness—that there's much more to develop, visually, with the ideas here. McAfee has another exhibit coming up at Hamiltonian Gallery this September and one at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Baltimore next year, which will likely touch on similar themes and hopefully expand on what he's planted here.