It’s all familiarly 19th century: modest colonial architecture, clay-toned roads, and greenish waters patterned by white sails. Tiny figures hustle along the shore, occasionally with mules and horses. But folk artist John Orne Johnson Frost’s “Bird’s- Eye View of Marblehead” (1867) is no simple landscape painting: It is also a map of the Massachusetts town. The scene is dotted with annotations that plot out the most important sites to the town’s trade in codfish, which was then its leading export. “We Had Over 100 Sail Vessels Going to the Banks,” boasts one description. “Over Here They Held Their Fish Fries,” reads another.

It’s not obvious that this painting should open an exhibition about Blackness in 18th- and 19th-century American visual culture. There are no Black people in the painting, nor is there any mention of them in the annotations. Nor is codfish front of mind when we think of Black labor in the 19th century. And yet, as it turns out, Massachusetts cod was a key player in the triangle trade, exported to European merchants or used to feed enslaved people in the Caribbean. Given this historical texture, Frost’s cartography of Marblehead’s economy is also inevitably a racial cartography. It reminds us that picturing a 19th-century American landscape involves picturing Blackness, and that even when Blackness is visually absent from the surface, it is manifestly present underneath it.

Blackness’s uncanny ability to crop up everywhere whether wanted or not, to lurk and linger in the crevices of all that it touches, animated my experience of Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North at the American Folk Art Museum. Focused on the 18th century and antebellum North, the exhibition — and its accompanying scholarly catalogue — assembles over 70 works of painting, needlework, ceramics, drawing, and photography. As its title suggests, Unnamed Figures not only illuminates Black appearances in the visual culture of this period but also asks how our encounters with them are shaped by the erasure of Blackness from art and archives.

Don’t come to this exhibition expecting to see many pictures of Black people that sit comfortably alongside words like “empowerment” or “excellence.” Don’t expect many Sambos and Mammies, either. Most of the artwork on view was created for White people’s memories of themselves: Uninspiring portraits of enslavers and landscapes depicting their plantations abound. These representations ask, as co-curator Emelie Gevalt writes in the catalogue, “How can we tell Black stories with all this White stuff?” The uncomfortable looking that follows from this question is what makes the exhibition worth visiting.

Since first encountering it, I have been sitting with a portrait by Joseph Badger picturing a girl named Elizabeth Greenleaf, whose childhood death led to the conviction and execution of Phillis Hammond, her 17-year-old enslaved nursemaid. The facts around Hammond’s conviction are murky at best and most likely constitute racist conspiracy. However, we do know that Hammond remained silent during her trial, declining to answer her White interrogators. With this in mind, I am inclined to think of the Greenleaf portrait not only as a record of Hammond and her tragic story, but also of her refusal to be captured by archives linking her to criminality. When I think of the portrait — and Hammond’s absence from its frame — I think of her insistence on remaining inscrutable and opaque.

Opacity lingers everywhere in Unnamed Figures and its catalogue. Wall texts and essays are suffused with a speculative lexicon of “possibly” and “perhaps.” This is not an unfamiliar vocabulary for most intellectual work on Black people in the 19th century. What is novel is the way the exhibition fully embraces this uncertainty. Joining a growing scholarly dialogue influenced by academic Saidiya Hartman’s method of critical fabulation — which aims to ethically reconstruct history from “silences in the archive” created by white supremacy — the curators and catalogue essayists treat historical lacunas as openings, turning unanswered questions into unexplored possibilities as they draw figures like Phillis Hammond, and several others, out of obscurity. Black presence is carefully inserted in and indexed to Black absence.  

Black artists do not appear in ample quantities here, which felt like a curatorial shortcoming. True, the number of early American Black artists that we know of today remains limited, but there are enough that the exhibition felt imbalanced in this respect: I wondered after the absence of makers like Augustus Washington, Edmonia Lewis, and Robert Seldon Duncanson. That being said, when we do encounter Black creatives’ hands in the show, their capacity to mold selfhood against overwhelming forces of erasure is even more remarkable. I was particularly amazed by a selection of needlework made by women of the Heuston family in Maine. These embroiderers wove their family trees out of silk, creating shimmering testimonies to lineage and kinship. Ensconced in an embroidered frame of roses, the names, birth, and death dates of family members — starting with Mehitable Griffin and William Swain (born 1785 and 1774 respectively), and ending with Pame W. Heuston (1810–29) — details the family genealogy. There is a marvelous swell in laying eyes on these attestations to Black familial memory when at the time of their making in 1830, Black families were being ripped apart on auction blocks, and when 200 years later, it remains impossible for most descendants of the enslaved to know who their ancestors were.

I was also captivated by the meticulous construction of these objects: the precision of the needlework, the sumptuous glow of the silk. In turn, I found myself wanting more from the American Folk Art Museum as an art museum. Given the vast historical and archival work involved in Unnamed Figures, aesthetic considerations — which cannot be separated from the historiographic and archival dimensions of the exhibitions — fell to the wayside. After reading the catalogue, I still wondered: What were the aesthetic and stylistic conventions of the era that informed the making of the objects in the exhibition? How did various formal and material decisions weigh on the racial apparatus that the show so rigorously interrogates? All told, Unnamed Figures might be reframed as a negotiation of archival — rather than purely visual — absence and presence. Its most brilliant lines of inquiry are opened up by visual objects but do not necessarily remain entrenched in them. My admiration for this archival engagement is deep, as is my yearning for the investigations that will follow its trail.

Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through March 24. The exhibition was curated by Emelie Gevalt, AFAM curatorial chair for Collections and curator of Folk Art; RL Watson, Lake Forest College assistant professor of English and African American Studies; and Sadé Ayorinde, Terra Foundation predoctoral fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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