Portraits tell stories—sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly. In many cases, portraits tell stories not only about the individuals represented in them, but also about the artists who made them, the culture and time in which they were created, and even the era in which they still exist. In other cases, portraits disclose little, giving only brief or cryptic glimpses into the lives of the sitters, the makers, and the historical circumstances under which they were created.
This first chapter of American Memory, “People and Identity,” digs into some of the stories behind these portraits as it aims to decolonize history’s exclusive retellings. Some images generously offer clues about their subjects’ biographies and identities, while others conceal individual characteristics and personal narratives altogether—either as an artistic choice or historical elision. This exhibition chapter spotlights artists who uplift, grapple with, and critique North American identities, returning agency to the artists’ cultural narratives, while questioning the idea of a purely “American” identity.
Listen to a conversation between Kantara Souffrant, Curator of Community Dialogue, and Milwaukee Art Museum Docents as they discuss portraits, identity, and looking at difficult images.
Emiliano Zapata Taken Prisoner challenges the idea that victory is a precursor to power and, thus, historical remembrance. In this print, Ignacio Aguirre chose to show the guerilla leader Zapata at the height of his revolutionary activity: though framed by armed soldiers and with his hands seemingly tied around his back, Zapata towers over his captors, in many ways leading them despite his arrest. Aguirre positioned Zapata above the soldiers as a monument to his power to influence change in his community and country. The farm fields in the background reference Zapata’s role in inspiring the agrarian movement in Mexico after thousands of indigenous families were displaced, a cause that today still bears his name: Zapatismo.
Emiliano Zapata Taken Prisoner is one of ten images that Aquirre created for Prints of the Mexican Revolution. (The portfolio’s folder and cover images are his.) The 85 linocuts in the portfolio illustrate the events surrounding the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 and tell the rich and tumultuous history of that decadelong event. The portfolio, published nearly three decades after the revolution’s close, is perhaps the most important collaborative work to come out of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (or People’s Graphic Workshop), an artists’ print collective founded in Mexico in 1937.
Aguirre had firsthand experience with the Mexican Revolution during the years 1915 to 1917. He fought alongside Venustiano Carranza—president of Mexico from 1916 to 1920—against the revolutionary generals Pancho Villa and Zapata himself. After his service, Aguirre worked in several mines and, then once again, participated in the Revolution’s last uprising of 1920. It was after this final event that he began studying art in earnest, training with the artist Diego Rivera, among others, and eventually becoming director of the Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1953. Given his experience in the revolution, Aguirre was a true “artist-revolutionary,” making his sensitive depiction of his one-time enemy Zapata all the more poignant.
American, b. 1955
In Kerry James Marshall’s Memento, a female figure directs her gaze at us; she may be casting resentment or cautiously ushering us into a sacred space. Memento memorializes civil rights figures as angelic portrait miniatures who float within gray puffs of washed ink. Below the clouds, small portraits of President John F. Kennedy (who put forth little to ensure racial equity) and Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., are enshrined in a black rectangle. The rectangle is similar to the shape of an announcement board found during funeral processions. Marshall here expanded the pantheon of people who were killed in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, highlighting the brilliance of the victims’ lives and commemorating them alongside civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. These lives include Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and Freedom Summer Campaigners Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Beneath their portraits, partially revealed text reads, “We Mourn Our—,” leaving the memorial open-ended to how the viewer desires to remember the figures, as heroes, family members, or victims. Marshall has stated that he prefers not to focus on the act of violence, suggesting that we should think more about the individuals who had their lives taken from them within the fullness of the life they had, and what they represent for healing moving forward.
In contrast, Jacob Lawrence’s Photos asserts self-determination for Black communities. The pictures of Black figures at weddings and births, at graduations, and in professional settings—meeting modern benchmarks in life—negate limiting, white-constructed narratives of Blackness. Through the arrangement of photographs, which recall those we may see in a loved one’s home, Lawrence reinforced that the achievement of success by Black and African American people is not a distant fantasy and that communities can create spaces to celebrate themselves. The work’s pastel colors emanate the tenderness of recalling joyful memories, honoring the many facets of Black life as significant to American history.
Both Marshall’s Memento and Lawrence’s Photos use small personal photographs to connect with viewers and to make a particular point. Marshall’s Memento bestows grace upon the historical figures pictured and negates the idea of martyrdom. None of these figures, nor the civilians whose lives were stolen before and during the movement, intended to perish for equality or be a symbolic victim of racial terror; they wanted to experience a future where their humanness and rights were recognized without discrimination, as those people in Lawrence’s Photos did and do.
American, 1775 or 1777–1856
Before the United States Congress abolished the importation of enslaved people in 1807, the De Wolfs were an infamous seafaring family who built their fortune through shipping and trafficking humans, eventually holding plantations and business interests throughout the colonies and the Caribbean. This legacy of capitalism and colonialism, however, is not evident in these two portraits of the De Wolf siblings, William and Charlotte. Unlike many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American portraits, where conspicuous consumption and the origins of one’s wealth are prominently displayed, the portraits of the brother and sister by Cephas Thompson, a self-taught painter, are politically neutral. Both are set within a rose-colored vignette, stiffly poised and in fashionable attire. Only modish clothing and the book beneath Charlotte’s right elbow give any indication of the two’s identities or interests.
Compare these two portraits with one by John Smibert of shipping merchant Jacob Wendell from 1731. Descended from Dutch merchants, Wendell expanded the family’s interests after settling in Boston, where he gained considerable wealth in the shipping business. The sailing vessels outside the window, along with the writing instruments and letters, reference Wendell’s profession and prosperity, as do his red-velvet frock coat, the pewter inkwell, and the writing table. These types of attributes and signals were a typical format for Smibert and many portraitists of the time, and extended into the nineteenth century, rendering Thompson’s depiction of the De Wolf siblings all the more unusual.