Joshua Johnson, one of the first professional African-American artists, spent the majority of his career painting portraits of white families in Baltimore, Maryland. He is only known to have painted two portraits of African-American men, which have been separately owned since the 19th century. These paintings are finally reunited in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s (BCMA) new exhibit, “African/American: Two Centuries of Portraits.” They, along with photography, sculpture and more contemporary pieces, tell the stories of African Americans from the Antebellum period to the present day.
The exhibition, which opened on Thursday with a curator’s tour, is part of this weekend’s AF/AM/50, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Africana Studies program, the John Brown Russwurm African American Center and the African American Society (now the Black Students Union). Curatorial Assistant Elizabeth Humphrey ’14 and BCMA Co-Director Frank Goodyear joined forces to present the exhibit to the College community.
For this weekend only, the BCMA is also featuring art by AF/AM/50 speaker David C. Driskell H’89 in an exhibition titled “The Art of David C. Driskell, H’89 and the Art that Inspires Him.”
“It’s really exciting to think of the museum as sort of a hub or a space for this cultural activity and to offer an exhibition … to visitors who are coming back to celebrate,” said Humphrey.
In addition to commemorating AF/AM/50, the idea for the exhibit came from a desire to reunite Johnson’s portraits. One of the portraits, thought to be of a man named Abner Coker, is owned by BCMA. The other, believed to be of a man named Daniel Coker, is being borrowed for the exhibit from the American Museum in Bath, England.
Lauryn Dove ’21 curated the exhibit with the assistance of Humphrey during her summer internship at BCMA. She constructed the exhibit around the pair of Johnson’s portraits, with many works being drawn from the BCMA’s permanent collection and the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.
With Humphrey’s guidance, Dove developed written and audio labels to accompany the pieces in the exhibit.
“[We wanted to] pose questions to the audience so that they can come away reflecting on the exhibition rather than having someone tell them what to think,” Goodyear said.
The exhibit also features several of BCMA’s new acquisitions, including a rare photograph of abolitionist Sojourner Truth and a marble bust of an unidentified female made by Edmonia Lewis, a pioneering African-American sculptor.
Alongside these works is a high quality reproduction of a John Brown Russwurm portrait. Russwurm was the first African-American to graduate from Bowdoin and the third African-American to graduate from an American college. The actual portrait, which is currently in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is the only known likeness of him.
Although the exhibit mainly features works from the Antebellum period, it also includes a few contemporary pieces. These more recent pieces are meant to encourage viewers to consider how the past impacts African Americans today.
“In a lot of ways this exhibition serves as a point to reflect on how far we’ve come but also [to] push us forward in the future,” Humphrey said.
A few of the pieces on display, including Johnson’s Abner Coker portrait, were acquired for a historic 1964 exhibition at BCMA, titled “The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting.” This was one of the first exhibitions at an American museum to focus on art by and about African Americans. At the time, it attracted prominent visitors, including Martin Luther King Jr. and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Like that exhibition, “African/American” is an opportunity for BCMA to display art and stories that have historically have been excluded from museums.
“What we’ve been trying to do here at the museum, certainly over the last two decades or so, is to continue to scrutinize our collections, understand where we have privileged certain traditions and not been aware of or not made commitments to others and try to address those gaps,” Goodyear said.
“African/American” will be on display in the Becker Gallery until February 9, 2020.