Held in conjunction with the National Black Arts Festival, Mercy, Patience, and Destiny: The Women of Whitfield Lovell’s Tableaux at the ACA Gallery of SCAD-Atlanta showcases charcoal portraits of African American women on found wood. As Whitfield Lovell once said, “Installations are about memory and heritage and the markings that the past have made—and continue to make—on who we are.” Lovell takes viewers on a journey into the past in hopes of fostering a better understanding of the future.
Lovell’s process digs into the past to rediscover the anonymous figures of history and give them identities they would be proud of today. He collects and maintains an archive of photographs, tintypes, and old postcards from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The nameless faces that occupy the photographs become his subject. Many African Americans do not know the details of their heritage since slave owners often kept scattered records, if any. Attempts to find learn about one’s ancestors often prove unsuccessful. Lovell approaches these photographs as if they were his ancestors and gives these once anonymous people an identity, and also a dignity.
The exhibition revolves around the large installation entitled Servilis. “Servilis” is a Latin word that means “to be a slave.” The work depicts six women all clothed in the same dresses and aprons. Each woman’s hands and arms carefully overlap the body of the next, leading the viewer’s eye through the picture. The individuality of each face is truly fascinating. Five pedestals topped with stuffed ravens are placed in front of the wooden surface. In the exhibition catalog published by SCAD, senior curator Melissa Messina equates this image with the rise of local and national feminist organizations that challenged both sexual and racial inequality. Relating the theme back to Atlanta, Messina mentions the Atlanta Neighborhood Union that became a prototype for similar clubs in the future. Therefore, the ravens can either symbolize the harmful attempt to shut down these clubs or be a symbol of the ladies’ watchful protection of their rights. Servilis shows Lovell’s ability to give these anonymous faces an identity they would be proud of.
Another work titled Cut depicts a lady with a distant, yet intense, stare in her eyes, accompanied by two axes on the left. The work raises the question: What kind of narrative has taken place? Was the woman the victim of a violent act, or was she the perpetrator?
Lovell’s installation reminded me of a different Cut—a work by Kara Walker, another famous African American artist. Made in her signature black-paper-silhouette-on-white-walls format, the image depicts a woman falling back as her wrists have been cut. Most scholars agree the image is autobiographical and reflects Walker’s frustration with backlash from other artists who saw her work as merely perpetuating a negative stereotype of African Americans.
Both Lovell’s Cut and Walker’s Cut contain implications of violence, and both use Antebellum imagery. However, I also believe that both works attempt to reclaim power. In Walker’s case, she takes the power away from her opponents and returns it to herself and her art. In Lovell’s case, the lady now has the weapons and, ultimately, the power.
This reclamation of power is what Lovell’s work is all about. He takes these anonymous faces and creates an identity for them on an international stage in an attempt to regain the power they lost because of their race and gender. By only exhibiting Lovell’s images of females, the ACA Gallery makes this theme more evident. And by reminding us of our past, Lovell shows how far we have come, and also how far we still have to go.
Mercy, Patience, and Destiny: The Women of Whitfield Lovell’s Tableaux closes August 23.