African American Visual Arts (British Association for by Celeste-Marie Bernier

By Celeste-Marie Bernier

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Just as they provide intimate views of their physiognomies, musculature and genitalia, these images tell us nothing concerning the untold lives of these enslaved Africans. Zealy adopts an anthropologist’s eye to show Alfred, Jem, Fassena, Jack, Drana, Renty and Delia from different angles, in long and short view, in profile and full frontal, to satiate audience demands for the graphic display of black bodies. As Brian Wallis writes, Agassiz’s aim was not to individualise but to ‘analyze the physical differences’ of racial types and ‘prove the superiority of the white race’ (Wallis, 1995: 40).

By superimposing racist text on to problematic images, 16 african american visual arts she opens up a new space within which to re-imagine otherwise elided African American narratives, histories and experiences. As she admits, ‘I also insert myself as the narrator of history’ (in Patterson, 2000: 79). Collectively titled, A Negroid Type / You Became a Scientific Profile / An Anthropological Debate / & A Photographic Subject, works such as these take critics to task for interpreting the original images of Jack, Drana, Renty, and Delia as ‘detached, unemotional, and workmanlike’ and as confronting the viewer with ‘faces like masks’ (Wallis, 1995: 40).

In these artefacts, she assumed the role of storyteller to create multi-panel works which brought scenes from the bible, history and folklore to life. The representational content and abstract compositions of Powers’s bible quilts contrast starkly with those which have survived and were produced by other enslaved women. 1800 consists entirely of abstract and geometric patterns. 1890) from ‘broad asymmetrical patterns’ by drawing on ‘African – specifically Mande – religious precepts’ (Farrington, 2004: 29).

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