From Art History to Black Lives Matter: Curatorial Fellow Kelli Morgan Sparks Dialogues with PAFA Students

In late September, Kelli Morgan, PAFA’s inaugural Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts, spoke with students taking the First Year Experience course. They gathered over pizza in the Historic Landmark Building auditorium, where Morgan encouraged students to write down the words that came to mind when considering their own identities, and then to explore those words.

“We think a lot about how we are perceived,” Morgan said when they were finished. “About things that are put on you or taken away from you before you can say anything. So what is race?”

One student replied that race is “a way to identify where you’re from,” while another observed that it’s something that has “no simple solution.”

Morgan, who has been leading a series of Community Conversations with undergraduate and graduate students throughout the fall, agreed with both answers. “But race is very real in terms of the American experience,” she added, noting the ice breaker’s intention—to indicate how race, identity, experience, and even “American” are arbitrary constructs. She then put the discussion into a broader socio-political context that is inextricably linked with art history. She talked about the ways in which representations of African Americans in American painting have been historically problematic, and how this history connects with present-day issues of racial identity, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, white supremacy and Black subjectivity.

Morgan proceeded with a slideshow of works from Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics. First, she juxtaposed Washington Family at Mount Vernon, which was part of the exhibition’s Wall of Washington, with Juane Quick-to-See Smith’s What Is an American? She urged students to notice the slave in the background of the former painting, whom she said appeared “painted into the curtain” because that was how “Americans were used to seeing Black people – not seeing them at all.” Morgan then urged students to consider the disembodied figure in What Is an American? with that haunting question written underneath, and to connect representations of Black people with those of Native Americans.

Morgan’s Community Conversations have been taking place across PAFA’s campus, tackling not just issues of race but of sexuality and gender identity as well. They have grown in popularity and have firmly established Morgan’s curatorial presence at PAFA, offering students opportunities to think about PAFA’s collection, art history and criticism, and current events in more profound ways. Moreover, the conversations themselves have become increasingly more complex.

Most recently, Morgan met with students in the galleries of the Historic Landmark Building along with special guest Theodore Harris, whose powerful political works were also on view during Happiness, Liberty, Life? For this conversation, Morgan had purposely placed easels throughout the galleries containing poetry and images from Harris’ series, Thesentur: Conscientious Objector to Formalism.

For example, on an easel placed next to Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, the words “Apparently aesthetics can function as a tool of racism” appeared over a faded image from the Dutch Masters Cigar box, which was taken from Rembrandt’s Syndics from the Draper’s Guild. Harris explained that he considered those Dutch masters to be “ghosts” of art history, and said the project was designed to “talk back to art history’s critics, but also to the history of the Dutch West India Company who were major traders in the flesh business at the time Rembrandt painted this work.” The quote itself actually related to the ongoing marginalization of Black artists who are being “stopped and frisked” by mainstream art critics, as Harris said.


Meanwhile, Morgan asked students if they could “imagine an art history without an authoritative European canon” at the center. She said, “There are works in this gallery painted by Black artists,” pointing to works by Joshua Johnson, “but you wouldn’t know that because these artists were working within the popular styles just as adeptly as their white contemporaries.” Race often usurped the fact that most African American fine artists produce masterful works, giving way to the false claim that there were no skilled Black artists working in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then she encouraged student questions to foster conversation about the roles museums play as instructive institutions.

Written by ZP Heller

November 1, 2016

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