Unassumingly tucked away in the Becker Gallery of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art  (BCMA) is a new exhibition, “Letters and Shadows: African American Art and Literature Since the Harlem Renaissance.” 

The show engages both students and the community, continuing the BCMA’s tradition of exploring issues of race and discrimination through art.  

On the back wall of this intimate space hangs a large, black silhouette of a woman falling endlessly into a white void. The focal point of the show, “African/American” by Kara Walker, is just one expression of the African-American cultural experience on display in the exhibition that will run from January 22 to March 15. Striking and powerful, the image draws you into the gallery, bringing you closer to the mystery and suffering. 

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross and Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Muther began developing the show in June 2013 during a workshop for college faculty at the museum. 

“[Montross] said, ‘Why don’t we go down into the collection and just see what’s there?’ And she kept pulling things out, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” said Muther.

Montross added, “The show looks at intersections of literature and visual arts either created by African Americans or representing African American culture, and their experience in the United States starting more or less from the Harlem Renaissance into the present day.” 

These intersections and connections between the written and the visual also inspired Muther and Montross to create the “Letters and Shadows” exhibition in conjunction with Muther’s African American Literature and Visual Culture course. Muther has taught the course before, but this is the first time that she has worked with the BCMA on a collaborative exhibition.

“I took the core of that class and let what was in the museum, in certain ways, dictate how I revised the syllabus,” said Muther. “So in a sense, every stage in the course is about these conjunctions, cross-currents, and connections between visual and literary works.”

Montross also explained that these connections reach across history and medium into different lives and social movements that create a compelling temporal complexity between the pieces.

“Artists and writers are often going back in time and mining references from past writers,” said Montross. “There’s often this reweaving and reappropriating of language and art back on itself.”

Identifying and exploring these relationships and their contexts will be key for the students in Muther’s class.
“There’s an act of discovery in the course in terms of new connections that students might find,” she said.

The show’s pieces vary widely in medium. For example, photographs hang across from pop-up books and letters inspire lithographs.

As a collection, these pieces inform each other and bring together artists and writers across the boundary of time. Many works belong to the BCMA permanent collection, and others are on loan from the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives. 

Between Kara Walker’s charged prints, enigmatic Harlem Renaissance-era photographs, and even a book of illustrations based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Muther’s students have plenty to work with.

At an event for her students next month, Muther hopes that they will have the opportunity to share some of their discoveries with the public.

Looking toward the future, Muther said that it would be unrealistic to recreate this exhibition every time she offers her course. However, she hopes to continue collaborating with the BCMA on projects honoring the work of African American artists.

According to Montross, the BCMA already has a long history of showcasing art produced by or depicting African Americans. 

“This [exhibition] is one more level to that,” she said.

This exhibition is also tangentially related to the BCMA’s recent launch of a website commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of a 1964 exhibition called “The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting.” Martin Luther King Jr. himself visited the original exhibition and gave a speech at Brunswick’s First Parish Church.

In “Letters and Shadows,” Bowdoin’s legacy of using art to explore, address and engage society, history and culture lives on. The exhibition will be on display until March 15.