Celebrating Juneteenth: The Power of Portraits

June 17, 2021
Index Magazine

Celebrating Juneteenth: The Power of Portraits

This photograph of a gallery shows a painting that depicts three different full-length views of a Black woman standing with her arms relaxed at her side. She wears hoop earrings, wire-rimmed glasses, and a long, white gown with a slit and a halter neck. Positioned against a matte white background, she stands as if seen, from left to right, in profile, from the front, and from behind.
Barkley L. Hendricks, American, October’s Gone . . . Goodnight, 1973. Oil and acrylic on linen canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard Norton Memorial Fund, 2010.2. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

On June 19, 1865, a full two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation mandated the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy and two months after the end of the Civil War, word reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. 

On that Monday, referred to by many as America’s second Independence Day, Union troops marched into Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, bringing news of the end of the war and freedom to 250,000 enslaved African Americans. Known as Juneteenth, the date is celebrated across the United States as the end of chattel slavery.    

Some of the earliest visual representations of Juneteenth celebrations are photographic portraits. In the photograph above, made by Grace Murray Stephenson on June 19, 1900, a group of African American elders poses for the camera. Dressed in fine attire for the occasion, each asserts his or her individuality, standing confidently and looking head-on at the camera. The photograph is a vivid document of their self-fashioning on a day that celebrated freedom and the promise of equal rights for all.

From the 19th-century portraits in oil by free artist of color Julien Hudson to the photographic carte-de-visites of abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, portraiture had long served African American artists and sitters as a tool for countering stereotypes, for asserting individual and collective identity, and for challenging narrow conceptions of Black experience. This tradition continued through the 20th century and into the 21st. 

This Juneteenth, Harvard students and staff present a selection of images by and of Black individuals from the Harvard Art Museums collections. These 20th- and 21st-century works explore the complexities of identity, agency, and self-fashioning, celebrating the diversity of the American experience. 

A Step Forward: October’s Gone . . . Goodnight, by Barkley L. Hendricks

“I view my contribution as an artist as being American first. [I’m] of African descent, but I’m American. Not in a flag-waving sense, but we’ve paid our dues through history . . . as Black people, we are Americans.” —Barkley L. Hendricks (2017)

Juneteenth offers an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of what it means to be American and how Black identity is and has been represented. In anticipation of the holiday, I find myself turning to the work of Barkley L. Hendricks (1945–2017), an artist who in the past 20 years has finally received long-overdue recognition as a pioneering painter in the United States. Best known for his portrayals of fashionable men and women, based on friends, family, and people he encountered in daily life, Hendricks expertly translated the individual styles, gestures, and self-assuredness of his Black contemporaries into evocative, life-size representation. 

As he developed his artistic practice in the late 1960s—a moment in which critical circles hesitated to take figuration seriously—Hendricks unapologetically and steadfastly painted Black figures. Disinterested in the painting of his contemporaries, Hendricks was captivated instead by the virtuosic techniques of the Old Masters—Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Rembrandt—as well as the documentary-style photography of Walker Evans, with whom he studied at Yale in the early 1970s. Yet these white men of art history’s western canon offered little in relation to Hendricks’s reality, and he found he could re-situate the tradition of western portraiture by substituting a dark-skinned figure against a stark, abstract field of white for the light-skinned figure against a dark, ornate background. 

In October’s Gone . . . Goodnight, Hendricks paints a three-in-one portrait of a chic Black woman, wholly sprung from her disco-dancing era. The inclusion of small details such as her hoop earrings, wire-rimmed glasses, and short natural hair underscores a sense of individuality and sparks contemplation: Where is she going? What is she thinking? Her au courant halter dress could have stepped straight off the runway of Stephen Burrows, the first internationally influential African American designer, or Halston; her expression is enigmatic, almost deliberately deadpan, and coupled with her stance, seems to tell us she will not be performing, posing, or bumping (one of the era’s favorite disco moves) for anyone but herself. 

Hendricks juxtaposes a white-on-white effect, a signature of his “limited palette” series—glossy white clothing (painted in oil) in subtle contrast to the matte white ground (acrylic)—with a highly illusionistic rendering of flesh and skin, bathed in an unseen light source, save slight reflections in the metal and glass of the woman’s accessories. Hendricks thus transforms the iconic image of the marble white caryatid, solid and columnar, and breathes 20th-century Black culture into it, placing the figure in a paradoxical space. She seems both to float ethereally, out of reach and beyond time, and to exist concretely, a woman true to her historical moment. 

This tension between recognition and inaccessibility is enhanced by Hendricks’s framing. He truncates her legs, suggesting the extension of her body below the pictorial frame. In this way, Hendricks invites the viewer to stand, literally and metaphorically, on equal footing with the subject. By propelling the viewer and subject into an intimate spatial relationship and combining tradition with contemporary life, Hendricks “paint[ed] into history [himself and] an idea of the people he knew,” as curator Zoé Whitley argues, “rather than waiting for someone else to confer the honor upon him.”[1] 

Lauren Hanson is the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums.

[1] Zoé Whitley, “American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration,” in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, ed. Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley (London: Tate Modern, 2017), 194. The quote from Hendricks at the top of this entry is also from Whitley, at p. 198.

Considering Representation: On Elizabeth Catlett’s Portrait of a Woman

Beginning in the late 1940s, American and Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett produced works at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (T.G.P.; the People’s Print Workshop) in Mexico City, including Cabeza de Negra (c. 1948), also known as Portrait of a Woman. While this print features an unnamed, unindividualized Black subject, Catlett produced portraits of many recognizable, public figures. In 1953 and 1954, for example, she led a collective print project at T.G.P. focused on celebrating prominent Black subjects, including Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and Crispus Attucks.[1] 

Prints such as Cabeza de Negra evidence Catlett’s complex negotiations of European modernism, including employing a critical stance to the embrace of cross-cultural modes of expression, and the intentional incorporation of T.G.P.’s longstanding sociopolitical, idiomatic work. From the 1930s, Catlett created lithographs and linocuts, which are printing techniques historically associated with radical, politically conscious artistic production. Her work was didactic, often seeking to elevate “ordinary” subjects for a working-class public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the 1950s, Catlett had caught the attention of anti-Communist forces. This scrutiny, combined with her work’s formal qualities and subject matter, gave Catlett a special status in 1960s visual culture and the Black Power imaginary.[2] 

One of Catlett’s most recognizable and reproduced prints is Sharecropper (also named Cosechadora de algodón, or Cotton Picker, when published in 1957). First made while she worked out of T.G.P., the print shows an unnamed laborer. In Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico, Melanie Anne Herzog writes of the work: 

This commanding image of a strong, dignified African American woman fieldworker is [a] superb example of the fusion of artistic languages that Catlett was able to employ to produce a powerful artistic statement. . . . Catlett claims an imposing presence for this obviously poor, hardworking woman who is seen from below, larger than life.[3] 

Like the subject of Sharecropper, the Black woman in Cabeza de Negra is anonymous yet decidedly present, addressing the viewer directly and filling the frame. Fairly large for a single portrait image, the frame measures roughly 22 by 18 inches, and Catlett uses the entire surface to realize the image. The face, hair, and shoulders, which emerge from an indeterminate background, are executed in a series of maneuvers rendering light and dark areas, coalescing in a truly monumental portrait. The viewer can see the attention paid to materiality and process—a hallmark of Catlett’s practice.            

Catlett’s oeuvre does the work of making “ordinary” figures consonant with well-known public figures. She represented both “ordinary” African American workers from the rural, southern United States and preeminent African American women. Her work was recognized as socially conscious by artists and revolutionaries of her time.[4] As Richard Powell puts it, “When one is face to face with Elizabeth Catlett’s graphic work, after celebrating her technical accomplishments and eye for visual eloquence, one must acknowledge, then marvel at, the inclusive, international dimensions of her subjects’ blackness, femaleness, and mejicanismo.”[5] 

As evidenced in her body of work, Catlett remained committed to what I often think of as a keenly critical stance, engaging issues related to power and representation as well as perception and the gaze. 

Chassidy Winestock is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. 

[1] Melanie Anne Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 101–3.

[2] Lisa Farrington, Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 126–27; and Jo-Ann Morgan, The Black Arts Movement and The Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019), 47–49.

[3] Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett, 105.

[4] Farrington, Creating Their Own Image, 126–27; and Morgan, The Black Arts Movement, 47–49.

[5] Richard J. Powell, “Face to Face: Elizabeth Catlett’s Graphic Work,” in Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944–1992, ed. Jeanne Zeidler (Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 1993), 53.

A Malcolm X Monument: Notes on Gordon Parks’s Untitled, Phoenix, Arizona, 1963

Looking at this Gordon Parks photograph of the man who would become El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, I think of Malcolm’s vulnerability. His fellow passenger on this flight aims a camera at him in a private moment. He’s apparently high above the ground. And death was constantly stalking him. After a certain point, it seemed there could be an attempt on his life at any moment. On February 21, 1965 (21 months after this picture was taken), he was murdered—shot to death on stage at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. 

André Malraux recalls a conversation in which Picasso talks about the light coming from the lantern in Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions.” Picasso says, in essence, “The light is death.” I see something similar here with the light from the airplane window.[1]

It’s uncanny how this photograph seems to anticipate Malcolm’s death and needs that didn’t yet exist when it was taken, such as the need for a monument to his memory—which is one thing this photograph is. Of course, Malcolm and Parks may have both had intuitions or premonitions about what was to come. 

When this picture was made, Parks was at work on an illustrated report for Life magazine (in which this image does not appear). The story would be touted on the cover of the May 31, 1963, issue as “A Negro Photographer Shoots from Inside THE BLACK MUSLIMS.” In his second autobiography, Voices in the Mirror (1990), Parks describes the complexity of his situation at the time: “The black militants regarded me with dubious eyes. And no doubt my editors pondered whether or not they could rely on my reporting objectively—because, I too, was black . . . I had to shake off the strangeness of being considered a friendly enemy.”[2] After publication of the report, though, a deep relationship flourished between Malcolm and Parks. Malcolm switched from calling him “sir” to “brother,” and later, named him godfather to his second-born, Qubilah.[3] By the time this photo was printed in 1993, their relationship had changed again: Parks had become more of a witness to Malcolm’s life and work. 

According to Malcolm’s 1965 autobiography, it was about 1949 when, through independent reading and religious study in prison, Malcolm came to the insight that history had been “whitened,” especially in publications for popular audiences, and made a promise to himself: “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man the truth about himself—or die.”[4] The force of Malcolm’s example, his insight, and the significant place he assigned to the practice of history in the struggle of Black humanity against oppression have been a great force for good in the history of art history as I see it. All the more reason for us in the art and museum communities to hold his memory in our hearts and be spurred on by it as we go forward. 

I first saw this photograph a few years ago in Harvard professor Sarah Lewis’s exhibition Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship at the Harvard Art Museums. When Malcolm talked about the transformations of his life, Cambridge, more broadly, featured prominently. As he told Alex Haley in an interview published in May 1963 (the same month the above photograph was taken), “I often think, sir, that in 1946, I was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a common thief who had never passed the eighth grade. And the next time I went back to Cambridge was in March 1961, as a guest speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum.”[5] For my sake and his, I was happy to find his portrait on view here, in this city and on this campus. 

Camran Mani is the Cunningham Curatorial Fellow in the Division of Academic and Public Programs at the Harvard Art Museums.

 [1] André Malraux, La Tête d'Obsidienne  (Paris: Gallimard, 1974). In English translation, André Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, trans. June Guicharnaud and Jacques Guicharnaud (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 41.

[2] Gordon Parks, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 216.

[3] Ibid., 229.

[4] The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 201, 213.

[5] Alex Haley, “An Interview with Malcolm X: A Candid Conversation with the Militant Major-Domo of the Black Muslims,” Playboy (May 1963): 53–63.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s NanbanA New Acquisition 

What immediately attracted me to Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawing Nanban was its clever and layered allusions to so-called Nanban screens, a genre of 17th-century Japanese painting. Iconographic elements like the boats on the wavy water and the giant floating clouds, the relatively flat rendering of the background, and even the vertical “seam” along the right side of the picture all reference folding screens featuring Portuguese maritime visitors against a backdrop of gold clouds, such as this example from the Feinberg Collection. I was delighted to learn that both the artist and her brother—the model for the striking figure at the center of this drawing—had lived in Japan. The experiential connection to the place and culture is richly embedded in the work. 

When I saw this drawing in person in the fall of 2020, I was awestruck by the compelling, fashionably adorned figure (the red-tassel earring is particularly eye-catching). His posture and gaze may seem deceptively insouciant, yet he commands attention. Beauty imbues the textures of his skin. The focus on the tactility, sensuousness, and tonality of the Black skin seems to me an important shared characteristic in the artist’s oeuvre, and no less so in the drawings from this loose series she created in Spring 2020 during the pandemic lockdown in New York City. In Ojih Odutola’s words: “The surface isn’t something I trifle with. In the making of the work, skin is the geography I travel in order to discover each individual and his/her story. With every line I mark up, I map out the territory of their realities.” And she wants the viewer to travel throughout those areas with her. 

We recently purchased three drawings from the series, including Nanban. Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has been following Ojih Odutola’s career for several years and proposed the acquisition. One of our key collecting goals is to expand the parameters of who is seen and represented. We are excited to add this talented artist to our collection. Exquisite and powerful, Ojih Odutola’s drawings will inspire generations of students and visitors.   

Soyoung Lee is the Landon and Lavinia Clay Chief Curator at the Harvard Art Museums. 


Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow, and Natalia Ángeles Vieyra, the Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art, both in the Division of European and American Art at the Harvard Art Museums, compiled these entries and wrote the general introduction.