Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation

Article excerpt

LITERATURE AND ARTS Michael D. Harris. Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation. Foreword by Moyo Okediji. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xi + 296 pp. Color and b&w illustrations. Notes. Index. $34.95. Cloth.

In Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation, the art historian Michael D. Harris proposes to "examine how race has been codified visually and verbally, [to] discuss some of the effects of racial constructions on African Americans, and [to] look at some of the visual responses that have evolved as an effort to counter harmful racial characterizations" (2). He points out that "race is pandemic in the history, structure, institutions, assumptions, values, politics, language and thinking of the United States" (1). For the past two centuries, visual constructions of race helped determine and justify hierarchical power relations, and derogatory images and characterizations of blacks worked to legitimize practices such as slavery and segregation. Harris shows that although black has been a negative signifier in the American consciousness, African Americans have always offered "resistance to their dehumanization and caricature" (14). One of the most compelling aspects of Colored Pictures is its juxtaposition of disparaging representations with those that celebrate African Americans.

In the nineteenth century, for example, the Harper's Weekly Blackville series and the Currier & Ives Darktown Comics lithographs exemplified images that demeaned African Americans. Harris contrasts these with a painting by Winslow Homer and the "counterhegemonic" work of the black artist Henry O. Tanner. In another chapter, he analyzes the ways in which the works of the contemporary artists Donaldson, Overstreet, DePillars, Lockard, B. Saar, and High respond to grotesque images of the stereo-typical character of Aunt Jemima (the "mammy"). In the fourth chapter, Harris argues that "during the nineteenth century, the black female body in art had become a signifier for sexuality" (126). Discussions of depictions of female sexuality, from Manet's famous Olympia to paintings by Titian, Ingres, Gauguin, and Picasso, set the stage for Harris's critiques of "resistant" works by the contemporary women artists Lorna Simpson and Charnelle Holloway. Harris reads "compelling issues of race, gender and class" (165) in eleven paintings by the "color conscious" portraitist Archibald J. Motley Jr. The chapter also includes a discussion of a mixed-race-conscious work by the contemporary Cuban artist María Magdalena Compos-Pons.

Colored Pictures is as much about verbal images and language as it is about visual images. …