Curated by UVA History Professor John Edwin Mason, the Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift exhibition is having its opening celebration this Thursday, the 22nd, from 5 to 8pm.
The exhibition showcases portraits that African Americans commissioned from Charlottesville's Holsinger Studio during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The images, which were made at the height of the Jim Crow era, show Black people as they wished to be seen -- respectable, fashionable, and undefeated. They utterly reject the racist caricatures of the era.
Visions of Progress builds upon the pioneering work of our late colleague Reginald Butler, professor of history and director of the Woodson Institute, and Scot French (PhD, UVA, History), former associate director at the Woodson, who now teaches at the University of Central Florida. Stacey LeClair, one of our grad students, has been an essential member of our team.
Over the last decade or so, a lot of attention has been paid to the history of white supremacy in the Charlottesville region, as you all know. This is vital, of course, and forms the background to Visions of Progress. But this exhibition goes in a different direction. The portraits that we'll display invite viewers to see the resilience and creativity of the African American community in Virginia during the New Negro era.
Paradoxically, it was also the Jim Crow era, although you'd never know it from the portraits. And that's the point. People refused to be defined by the status that a deeply racist society assigned them.
The Holsinger Studio's customers, most of whom were working class, prepared for their portrait sessions with care, thinking deeply about how they would look, from clothing and facial expressions to posture and props. They presented themselves to the camera as women and men of dignity, style, and panache. The portraits became treasured possessions. They were also small acts of resistance to the visual culture of Jim Crow. As the late bell hooks famously argued, “though rarely articulated as such, the camera became in Black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”
This is a major exhibition, occupying the entire main gallery of the UVA's Special Collections Library. We'll display over 80 portraits, each with texts that place the lives of the people who commissioned them in the context of local and national history. Newspaper, books, sheet music, cameras, and glass plate negatives, among other items from the era, add additional depth to the exhibition.
The opening celebration is free and open to the public. More information about the opening is here, https://www.eventbrite.com/e/visions-of-progress-exhibition-public-opening-tickets-399618237907. (We're asking people to RSVP to give us a sense of the numbers.