“Freedom, a Fable” is on view at the Portland Museum of Art through May 2. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Mythmakers,” an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art this fall that juxtaposed works of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, contextualized these artists’ social attitudes – particularly Remington’s – many of which today would be considered offensive.

A kind of follow-up exhibition focused on Homer opened in late November, but before we could publish this review of “Freedom, A Fable,” the museum closed, on Dec. 9, when cases of COVID-19 were on the rise. The museum reopened March 25, and the “Freedom” exhibition will remain on view through May 2.

“Freedom” draws on museum holdings to look more closely at one aspect of Homer’s work: illustrations he made for Harper’s Weekly while embedded with a Union army regiment during the Civil War. The tiny exhibit – it occupies a single small gallery – pairs Homer’s magazine portrayals of African Americans with work by contemporary Black artists Kara Walker, Daniel Minter and Glenn Ligon, as well as the work of Red Grooms and Andy Warhol.

Don’t let its size fool you; “Freedom” packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch. Homer turned his artistic attention to the African American experience throughout his career, and for good reason. As a child of abolitionists, he was inculcated early in the inherent injustice of slavery. In an 1880 New York Times review, Homer was lauded for boldly acknowledging the intrinsic artistic value of Black subject matter through his work.

Paintings such as “Near Andersonville” and “Visit from the Old Mistress” had already portrayed strong Black women with sensitivity and unapologetic dignity, something revolutionary for the time. “Dressing for Carnival” transcended genre painting by monumentalizing the figures within the frame.

Winslow Homer’s “The Songs of the War” is part of “Freedom, a Fable” at Portland Museum of Art. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

So, what to make of the Harper’s Weekly illustrations, which rely on denigrating images of Black figures? In “Songs of the War,” Homer covers the pages with visual representations of popular tunes such as “Glory Hallelujah.” All but one feature only white people.

The last quadrant, “Dixie,” places a Black man with vacant gaze and ragged clothes atop a barrel (presumably liquor) marked “Contraband.” In another, “A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac,” minstrel-like Black men dance around a fire, entertaining Union soldiers who look on in varying states of attention, from bemusement to boredom. Was Homer a closet racist?

Winslow Homer’s “A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Wall texts reference the work of historians Peter H. Wood and Karen C.C. Dalton, who offered alternative readings of these images. “Contraband” in the first work may be commenting on the fundamental illegitimacy of enslaving and trading Black human lives, the word referring to the man rather than the barrel’s contents. An I.O.U. between a pair of gamblers in “Bivouac Fire,” they suggested, might actually be a call to conscience, expressing the debt white people owe African Americans “for centuries of forced labor.”

But any comfort we might take in these interpretations evaporates on viewing the key to the exhibition: a video of three community representatives talking about these images.

The problem begins with the narrator, explains activist, educator, performer and poet Abdul Ali (currently the artist in residence at Speedwell Gallery on Forest Avenue). “It’s a white man who’s telling the history … We have to unlearn everything … We will not go forward if we keep telling the same story.” It is necessary, he maintains, to also look at history through other eyes, namely of the oppressed.

There’s also a good chance the coded messages Homer might have been communicating were lost on the intended recipients. It would have been just as easy – I’d venture to say even likely – that Harper’s readers interpreted the I.O.U. as a debt between gamblers and no more. The word “Contraband” can be just as facilely read as an indictment of Black people engaging in a variety of immoral or criminal behaviors.

Artist Daniel Minter explains that images such as these, which denigrate rather than uplift and benefit all people, are essentially weaponized. “Those images are training other people how to see,” he says. Minter also talks poignantly about the stress we feel viewing images of people in situations in which they don’t belong and that are clearly uncomfortable, even dangerous, for them to be in.

Marcelle Medford, assistant professor in the sociology department of Bates College, talks about how depictions of African Americans as lazy, dancing, cowering – the negative associations are endless – imply Black people were weak and simply “waiting around for Union soldiers to come and free them.”

This denies the reality, proven by W.E.B. DuBois, she says, “that Black folks have always been architects in the fight for [their] freedom and liberation.” For instance, Black women were military spies during the Civil War, communicating in code that often parodied behaviors whites expected of them, thus weaponizing the stereotypes imposed upon them to fight back.

Kara Walker’s work has always done something similar. By using cut-out silhouettes as her medium and exaggerating so-called “Black” physical features, she comments provocatively on the legacy of slavery. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, which is what the stereotype does,” she has explained. The show takes its title, in fact, from a pop-up book Walker created, which is also on display.

Kara Walker’s “Occupation of Alexandria” on view at Portland Museum of Art. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Walker’s “Occupation of Alexandria” challenges the white view of this event. When Virginia seceded in 1861, Federal troops swept in, converting public buildings into hospitals for wounded soldiers and transforming the town into a munitions and supply center. During the four-year occupation, many African Americans arriving there with hopes of work instead died of malnourishment, smallpox and typhoid. The city’s thriving free Black communities were decimated.

At the bottom right of a triumphal visual account of the occupation from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Walker inserts a pair of silhouetted figures. Though they wreak of maligning “Black” cliches – big-lipped, tribally attired, perky-breasted – one raises a defiant fist. The sardonic stereotype adds a contradicting African American view to the scene, transforming it into a work of anger, power and protest.

Glenn Ligon’s work borrows a phrase – “I do not always feel colored” – from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” which he repeats in stenciled lettering across the surface. From top to bottom, the words first break up unnaturally from line to line, then become increasingly obscured by erasure or smudging. We could be viewing the virtual disintegration of the idea of race or the systematic white sublimation of Hurston’s more humanistic, colorblind view.

“A Distant Holla, Currency Exchange” by Daniel Minter. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Daniel Minter’s multimedia works, he explains in the video, replace racist imagery rather than combat it, by centering the work on Blackness then layering it with “complexity, beauty, symbolism.”  “A Distant Holla, Currency Exchange” features a Black Union soldier on the left and a corn-rowed figure in African garb on the right, at the bottom of which is a fish swimming in water. The positioning suggests the right figure originates in the east (Africa) and the left (west) figure is African American. Between them lies the painful Middle Passage and its consequences.

“Holla” is replete with symbols and enigmatic meanings. There are images of fish, wheat, okra, a seed pod – all possible references to forms of currency – as well as labor (wrench, hammer, axe). There are allusions to Black hair (combs), the adoption of Christian faith, farming and more inscrutable elements.

For instance, amulets hanging from the uniform’s buttons recall the tradition of West African cloaks adorned with talismans. One shows a pregnant Black woman who appears to have miscarried. Or perhaps the white void in her belly represents something more sinister (impregnation by her white enslaver?), while the black sphere on the ground is the progeny of this unholy union.

Is the red baseball-capped man in the woods or the Black woman in the water fleeing enslavement? This lyrical work telegraphs a far more complex and textured history than what we are taught in school.

Medford searingly dissects Grooms’s portrait of Confederate general Braxton Bragg better than I ever could. Warhol’s piece – an appropriated image of Birmingham race riots – at this point feels familiar and documentary and, so, less powerful (its blurriness almost obscures who is being beaten and who is doing the beating). Especially after the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, this is exactly what museums should be doing: educating, filling in the historical blanks, recontextualizing, sparking curiosity and conversation. Kudos to the PMA.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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