The curators at the Newark Museum of Art had an existential crisis. The century-old institution believed it could no longer be a fortress of European culture in a black majority city. Especially with so much unrest happening in the nation surrounding race.
“It’s not easy to critique your own collection and critique American history,” said curator Tricia Bloom. “We’re focusing on things that haven’t been discussed in those galleries — slavery, abolitionism, things that aren’t depicted, but are still important to understanding those periods.”
The difficulty in that endeavor lies in the sheer lack of African-American artists from early eras who could have shed light on their experience. To remedy this, curators chose 13 works from contemporaries who “bridge the past and present” and intermixed them with the 18th- and 19th-century collection. The Seeing America gallery’s new look — the first reinstallation in more than two decades — opened to the public last weekend with pieces by Ron Norsworthy and Adebunmi Gbadebo that gave the older works a “context” it never had before.
One example of this contrast is the pairing of Hiram Power’s 1847 sculpture The Greek Slave statue with Terrence Hammonds’ Black Abolitionist Wallpaper. Power, whose work can also be seen at the Met and in the White House, was a white abolitionist. His depiction of an enslaved Grecian woman was clear criticism of American slavery in its day, though some might argue it has lost its edge over time.
The effect of the stark white marble figure against Hammond’s damask pattern featuring images of black freedom fighters is not only visually striking, but it also acknowledges a gripe that black historians have — the telling of history is often dominated by the contributions of white abolitionists. The exhibit sets the tone for the museums’s new course under the leadership of Linda Harrison, who came on as CEO in 2019.
The black experience in 19th-century Newark is complex. Before 1860, the population of the community was small — only 19,732 residents — and there is even evidence of “substantial number of financially secure African-American Newarkers,” according to the Newark Public Library.
Even though New Jersey abolished slavery in 1866, the state remained complicit in the southern slave economy and dependent on goods slaves were making.
Noelle Lorraine Williams, director of the African-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission, shared in the exhibition notes the difficulty in finding black representation in 19th-century Newark art. Finally, she stumbled on a painting by an unknown artist. In the lower right-hand corner of an artwork that portrays David Alling’s chair-making shop is a black laborer. “I finally found this unsettled soul, furtively looking over his shoulder, almost out of sight,” Williams writes.
“It is significant that museums present about slavery, Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty in their walls because often many folks will not hear these perspectives in schools, churches and other public spaces,” Williams told the Four Oranges, adding that the reinstallation presents a “deeper framing of what it means to be American.”
The idea of recontextualizing historical paintings with contemporary artist is a bold take — and it certainly won’t be without its critics. The word presentism is making the rounds in scholarly circles. It essentially means looking at the past with contemporary eyes. Others believe that history has always has always been influenced by the present.
The gallery still has its beloved collection of landscape art, including works by Winslow Homer and Maplewood’s own Asher Brown Durand. This genre of painting — with the help of the Hudson River School — helped put American art on the international stage. “We’re not throwing out the American canon,” Bloom said. “But there’s always new ways of looking at history.”