In celebrating Black History Month, Whitfield Lovell’s exhibition will be focused on lost African American history and raises universal questions about America’s collective heritage. Its first stop will be the Boca Raton Museum of Art ( February 15 – May 21) and will continue on its national tour.
Organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) in collaboration with the artist, the exhibition is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Terra Foundation for American Art and encompasses the entire first-floor galleries of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This is the first time these multi-sensory installations by Lovell are presented together in a museum-wide show of this monumental size and scope.
“These installations sought to create a profound immersive experience that enables visitors to become participants in, not just observers of, the experience of these ancestors who were lost to time,” says Pauline Forlenza, the Director and CEO of the American Federation of Arts. “Together, these works convey passages between bondage, freedom, and socioeconomic independence, promoting a deeper connection with African American histories through art.
An exhibition of this magnitude would not be possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the six museums selected for this tour.”
Lovell is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Genius Grant, and is recognized as one of the world’s leading artistic interpreters of lost African American history. The internationally acclaimed artist is celebrated for his exquisitely hand-drawn, portraits (many are life-sized), drawn with Conté crayons, from historic photos he finds of anonymous individuals), which the artist combines with his intuitive assemblage of time-worn objects to raise universal questions about memory, American life, and reclaiming lost history that had been erased.
The works in this exhibition are anchored by images of everyday African Americans, from the 1860s to the 1950s (between the Emancipation Proclamation and the start of the Civil Rights Movement), a period of time the artist feels has been overlooked by the art world. “I see the so-called ‘anonymous’ people in these vintage photographs as being stand-ins for the ancestors I will never know,” says Whitfield Lovell. “I see history as being very much alive. One day, 100 years from now, people will be talking about us as history. The way I think about time is very different – I don’t think it really was very long ago that these things happened, it wasn’t that long ago that my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave,” adds Lovell. “The ancient Native American principles say it takes seven generations to overcome a tragedy, so in this context of generations we can begin to grasp why we are at this point we are living in now,” adds Lovell. This passage of time, with its love, loss, despair, danger, and freedom, comes to life via Lovell’s otherworldly, ghostly realms – demonstrating ongoing reverberations in our contemporary existence.
“This is a milestone exhibition, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art is honored to be chosen as the first venue to premiere this national museum tour,” says Irvin Lippman, the Executive Director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “In our modern-day world, so feverishly focused on ever-decreasing attention spans, the depth of presence we experience when walking through Lovell’s immersive art reminds us that remembering the past is something that matters.
Lovell’s interest in spirituality, healing, and ritual, together with his use of reclaimed and found objects, aromas, music, and sound, has long informed his practice which investigates the circularity of life. “There were not a lot of role models for me as a young Black man wanting to be an artist, a decision I made when I was very young at the age of 13,” says Lovell. “I didn’t have a lot of examples telling me that being an artist was something that I could do. When I came along in the art world, Black people didn’t have gallery representation – we made art because we felt strongly that we had to make art. We found a way to make art.”
Lovell’s hand-drawing virtuosity is rare in today’s world of technologically aided artmaking. The meticulously physical back-and-forth process is how the artist honors the person’s memory and their existence: he applies the charcoal, rubs it with his fingers to get the right tone, and then erases some to create the highlights.
“Drawing by hand is always a particular pleasure for me,” says Lovell. “Hand-drawing from the vintage photograph provokes the viewer to look more closely at the subject matter and to contemplate it more.”
By drawing these dignified portraits with grace and humanity, Lovell is honoring the memory of their suffering and perseverance. “The important thing is to make the art good, so that 100 years from now people would want to look at this work. As an artist, you have to find joy in the act of creating,” says Lovell.
Each realistic portrait is inspired by the antique photographs he finds in flea markets, discarded family albums, mug shots, and archives. Lovell renders each portrait directly onto old wooden boards with knots, holes, nails, traces of paint and other signs of age. On working with these vintage wood panels, what someone might consider to be a flaw in the found object becomes truly part of the artwork itself: “I’m working with historical images, and the wood itself has history already. The wood comes from old homes, where old souls once inhabited – so I think allowing the wood to have character is very important.” The striations of the wood often come through onto the faces of the unnamed persons.
Lovell then adds found household objects such as clothing, dishes or other mementos onto the wooden panel itself, or on the floor near each portrait. Finally, Lovell chooses a title for the tableau using words or phrases with multiple possible, often contradictory, meanings. He also uses titles of songs, and often incorporates recorded music of early Blues tunes, traditional slave songs, spirituals and gospel music. These tableaux inspire viewers to imagine how each person lived a full life, richly filled with nuances.
“I have avoided making images of famous people, and instead I use found images of so-called ‘anonymous’ people, whose names we don’t know and whose lives we can’t know about because they were erased from history,” says Lovell. “At one time this person walked the earth, spoke and lived and dreamed, just as we are doing today. I look for the humanity that I can find from each of the nameless images I choose to work from.” Throughout history, their experiences, psychology, and collective memory have often been overlooked or marginalized. Lovell’s work, steeped in the nation’s history, rescues a past that was hidden from us
For more on Whitfeld Lovell’s Passages:
Boca Raton Museum of Art