/Black Out Silhouettes Then and Now’ Rare art form on display in Mississippi more than just shadows of the past

Black Out Silhouettes Then and Now’ Rare art form on display in Mississippi more than just shadows of the past

The stories that are told in black and delicate profiles are rich, colorful and diverse. This art form predates photography and democratized portraiture. In
Contemporary artists use the silhouette to explore slavery and stereotypes. The digital work invites interaction and is a striking exploration of these issues. “Black Out”: Silhouettes Now and Then, a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibition, is still on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art through August 25th. It’s the first major museum exhibit to focus on the art form. The museum-curated companion exhibit, “A Closer look: Silhouette artists in Antebellum Mississippi”, highlights the work of early 19th-century “scissor artist” as well as their winter social-season trips to New Orleans, Natchez, and Vicksburg. Asma Naeem is the chief curator of Baltimore Museum of Art’s Black Out exhibition. She was previously a National Portrait Gallery curator. Silhouettes, small, cut-out portraits made from paper, also known as profiles or shades, were a major step forward in portraiture. They were very affordable at a time in which painted portraits were so costly. Many were able to access quickly-created silhouettes. This accessibility is the focus of “Black Out”. Consider also: The popularity of an art form which — in a time when slavery was still a problem — made everyone black. And, the fact that some people in America’s past were blacked out and their stories left untold. A double
is perhaps the first known representation of an American identical-sex couple.
Silhouette (artist unknown). Two women’s bust-length profiles are shown facing each other._x000D
It is surrounded by intricately braided human hair, which interlocks to create a heart. Fortune claims that the 1796 “Flora”, a life-size portrait of an enslaved African American lady, likely based on a silhouette by candlelight, was found in former slave quarters at her owner’s home. She also had her bill of sale. Fortune believes it “somehow traveled through history… it really resonates.” She says that Silhouettes were very fascinating at the time they were created, in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. This was because many people believed that a person’s face could reveal a lot about their moral character. There was a craze for silhouettes. They were commissioned to create portraits of oneself or their families. However, in some cases (such as those of enslaved persons), they also documented property. An 1807 newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave, Sancho, features a rare silhouette of the man. It was owned by Winthrop, the first governor of the Mississippi Territory. Auguste Edouart was the artist behind most of the 19th-century silhouettes in the exhibition. While most of the subjects were wealthy, Fortune said that he occasionally made silhouettes of those who were less fortunate, such as enslaved women, people from other countries, and people with disabilities. These people are highlighted in “Black Out”. A close-up view is a good way to get a better look at small, precise silhouettes. Closeups reveal the precise details of the cuts, and even the chalk lines, such as Edouart’s silhouette, of Laura Dewey Bridgman’s braids and dress ruffles. At the age of 2, she had lost her sight and hearing. Perkins School for the Blind made her a star, especially after Charles Dickens published her accomplishments. She also taught others, such as Oliver Caswell, who is featured in “Black Out”. Portraitist Thomas Sully, President John Quincy Adams, and other well-known
Americans were captured in a collection that also included foreign diplomats, an hypnotist, and many more. Often, the prop used to identify avocations, professions, or art was a telling prop. Silhouettes were made from a sheet paper and folded in half. The inside was blacked. Roger Ward, museum deputy director and chief curatorial officer, explains how the artist cut the silhouettes from a sheet of paper. He used a pair embroidery scissors and little scrappets. “Quickly turning a sheet of paper, the artist would cut it from back so that the last cut was, snip at the top or bottom of the heads — so you have two.” The exhibition’s “Now” section features large installations by three women artists who address the silhouette tradition today in ways that provoke, intrigue, and charm. Kara Walker turns imagery and stock characters of plantation life into graphic art.
They are both terrifying and inspiring in their efforts to address racial stereotypes as well as the violence perpetrated on enslaved African Americans. She is making a point. Fortune states that she wants us to feel very uncomfortable. The wall samples of “Auntie” and laser-cut blacksteel figures by the artist challenge viewers to confront the nation’s past. Camille Utterback creates a bird’s-eye silhouette using code and computer software.
Visitors’ shadows and movements are recorded in the abstract that changes constantly. Fortune states that artists are constantly creating contradictory works. Fortune said, “What you have is a way of creating a very direct and one-to-one representation” of your body using this digital art, much like a silhouette. It’s only temporary. As more people interact with the piece, the lines will dissolve. It’s a beautiful and serious piece that reflects the survival of an individual in the crazy world we live in today. Kumi Yamashita’s minimal works create light and shadow. The exhibition’s opening weekend was marked by careful manipulations of paper that created shadow human profiles in “Origami.” Ward observed the entire process. Ward observed the entire process. She’s used two fingers to create the lips. Yamashita’s “Chair”, a piece of wood carved from wood, looks nothing like the title. However, the light hitting it casts the shadow of a woman sitting down (a self-portrait). Fortune said that these pieces “seem magical.”_x000D