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Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra

Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra, Mexico, 1970

This film begins with Laura (Libertad Lamarque), a white singer and mother, reassuring Roberta, the dark-skinned daughter of her best friend Angustias (Eusebia Cosme) that “in this country, racism does not exist.” Throughout the film, this statement is refuted, revealing the issues of racial prejudice in Mexican society. Laura’s daughter, Alicia, falls in love and wishes to marry Ricardo, a black medical student. When she presents him to her mother, Laura reveals her latent racism and forbids the relationship. Laura seeks advice from Angustias but the two fight after Laura shouts that she does not want a negro in her family. Soon after, Alicia grows ill and needs a life-saving heart transplant, while her boyfriend doctor stands by her side. Roberta gets hit by a car and suffers a fatal head wound after her boyfriend denies her in front of his boss. Laura must reconcile with Angustias and ask her for consent to transplant Roberta’s heart into Alicia. Angustias gives her consent saying, “It is a negro’s heart, but it is a heart none the less that will save your daughter.” The film ends with the two women saying their last goodbyes to Roberta at the cemetery.

Film still from “Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra”

The film, directed by Abel Salazar, is set in 1970s Mexico against the backdrop of modern architecture and buildings from the colonial period. The plot resembles Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, but has several plot changes and a lot more melodrama. The story is appropriated for Mexican culture and can function as a critique of racism in Mexico, but also distances and marginalizes the struggle of the Afro-Mexican characters. Eusebia Cosme’s, an Afro-Antillean actress born in Santiago, Cuba, character Angustias reveals that she fled from the United States to Mexico when her daughter Roberta was born so to raise her child in a society that would not treat her inferior to others. This marks her as not Mexican, but African-American and places her (and the ethnic group she represents) as a foreigner in the country. Her acceptance would defy the Mexican tradition of identifying itself as mestizaje, a mix between indigenous and European descent.

Chapter Entry: Deborah Willis, “Exposure”

Deborah Willis’ essay “Exposure” focuses on the years 1942-1968, a period of extraordinary change in American society. As Willis explains, it was also a period of exceptional growth in black image-making, and a time of distinction for American news photographers. Willis explains her essay as an exploration of the “social conditions governing the act of being photographed and decoding of the photographs.” [1] I interpret “Exposure” as achieving two ends: First, Willis describes the importance of photographs in African American communities during this period, and suggests that the creation and dissemination of photographs fostered individual identities and forged community bonds. Second, she explores the role of photography in the civil rights movement, suggesting that the images – especially images made by news photographers – were crucial to the formation of a true political collective. These twin investigations provide a brief but comprehensive look at the role of photography and photographers in the civil rights movement.

Willis suggests that “what we imagine about this period is meditated through the insights of the photographers” who committed moments from key events to film. [2] These events were local and national, personal and political, individual and collective. The photographs, Willis states, represented the “conscience of this country.” [3] The result was a “collective visual memory” that persists today. [4] “Exposure” explores the development of this memory; to enhance this exploration, Willis and the editors, Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, use plays of omission and inclusion to trigger the reader’s memory and reinforce the essay’s arguments.

In African-American communities, photographers celebrated progress and documented historic changes. Family photographs were construed as both progressive and historical: the publication of baby photos in the NAACP’s Crisis was both a statement of “family” pride, with the family defined as all black Americans, and a historical record of, and argument for, the continuous improvement of the social, political and economic situation of African-Americans. Willis argues that this created a “visual taxonomy” – a vocabulary and syntax that could be used to read (and, perhaps, author) images of black Americans. [5] Baby pictures, which were published frequently in Crisis, did not merely elicits coos and grins; these babies were, in W.E. Dubois’ words, evidence of “a large and larger class of well-nourished, healthy, beautiful children among the colored people.” [6] These images were meant to be enjoyed, but they were also meant to instruct viewers – such is the nature of evidence.

The turning point in Willis’ essay – the shift from a focus on photography’s role in building individual identities and community norms to a broader exploration of photography’s role as a catalyst for social change – is a discussion of Ernest Withers’ photographs of Emmett Till. These photos do not accompany the essay. This omission is a brilliant twist: by avoiding reproductions of Withers’ photographs, Willis and the editors ask us to recall the images. The prompt is productive for many readers, who will be able to summon the horrifying photographs immediately, underscoring Willis’ point: these images are burned into our individual minds and imprinted on the American psyche.

Willis asserts that photographers in this period were witnesses who crafted “a visual language” to “testify” about “their individual and collective experience.” [7] Photography galvanized young people, motivated cultural change, and helped define the civil rights movement. Images helped messages coalesce, and allowed civil rights leaders to develop a different “visual taxonomy” that described atrocity in stark detail. These photographers were, by and large, white and employed by major news outlets. However, they were also deeply embedded in the civil rights movement, and often saw themselves as activists. A discussion of two images in the chapter will help explain this dual role.

Charles Moore was raised in Alabama, the son of a Baptist preacher. He trained in fashion photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, but was hired as a staff photographer for the The Montgomery Advertiser and The Montgomery Journal after graduation. Moore’s Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 [below] is an icon image of the civil rights movement.

Charles Moore, Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

At the center of the frame, three figures cluster together. They face away from the camera, towards glass doors hung with wooden blinds. A bright vertical line shoots into the frame from the right side, ending its trajectory at the lower spine of the tallest figure. The image is marred by a profusion of white flecks that are most concentrated in the upper right corner. Moore’s photograph records the use of high-pressure water hoses on peaceful demonstrators. The doors they face are shuttered, allowing those inside to turn a “blind” eye to the proceedings. Spray from the water hose, knocks the protestors into the building, but they do not cower; the man on the far right, who is taking the brunt of the water’s force in his back, stands strong, bracing himself against the building. The white flecks are spray from the jets, suffusing the atmosphere with water and drenching the group with residual moisture. Critics have suggested that the Moore’s decision to leave the hose operator unseen “implicate[d] the whole nation.” [8] Legislators and historians have credited images such as Birmingham Riots with fostering public support for the civil rights movement.

Willis quotes photographer Danny Lyon, using his images and his words as testimony. Lyon, a Brooklyn-born, self-taught proponent of New Journalism, became fully embedded with his subjects, a participant-witness. Lyon explains that he operated with the blessing of the SNCC, and was frequently directed to his images by James Forman, the executive secretary of the organization. [9] Lyon’s quote, printed under his photograph, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962 [below], reminds us that these photographs are not just evidence; they are also arguments. Water fountains were a symbol of the economic, educational and social disadvantages of blacks under Jim Crow laws.

Danny Lyons, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962

Lyon’s image of two water fountains, a large one for “whites” and a tiny one for “colored,” is both a record of a fact and a argument against the social conditions of that fact. Lyons’ matter-of-fact representational style tells us what is so, but its damns its subject: this is wrong on its face.

In the last third of the essay, Willis explores the impact of these images. She credits Moore and Lyon’s photographs with earning the investment of the American people, global attention to the civil rights movement, and critical changes in the legislation and enforcement of equality. Willis’ essay exposes the critical role played by news photographers in the success of the civil rights movement, giving these overlooked activists due attention by explaining the importance of their images. The magic of the essay is rooted in its demonstrative qualities. Willis, Fusco and Wallis do not merely tell us; instead, Willis evocative descriptions, the editors’ omissions and inclusions, and the photographs themselves combine to show us her argument.

I wish that the curators had been able to include some images of “life in the margins” – Willis’ description of images of black prosperity. “Exposure” is punctuated with searing news photographs, but Willis’ captivating introductory discussion focuses on more quotidian images. The richness of her scholarship is due, in part, to this comprehensive approach. A visual juxtaposition of the gentle and the jarring would have greatly enhanced this reader’s experience, extending the demonstrative qualities of the piece to its first third, as well.

Also, I wish that Willis had been able to devote time and space to analysis of the changing role of the photographs discussed. The function of these images has multiplied over the decades. The photographs were originally news items – reportage of important current events of the day. Over the decades, museum curators, art collectors, historians, and observers have added further meaning and purpose to these photographs. Lyons’ image of a water fountain is no longer proof of an existing situation; instead, it is a palimpsest of information, with multiple coterminous purposes and meanings. Today, it may be a record of the past, an art object to be collected, and an artifact to be displayed. I would love to know Willis’ thoughts on the sale of these images to collectors of “fine art” photography. Also, I would love to hear her thoughts on the display of these images as art rather than news. I think her take on the transmutation of these images – their acquisition of multiple identities – would be fascinating.

[1] Deborah Willis, “Exposure,” in in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 275.


[3] Id., 281.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., 276.

[6] Id., 278.

[7] Id., 275.

[8] Douglas Martin, “Charles Moore, Rights-Era Photographer, Dies at 79” New York Times, March 15, 2010.

[9] Willis, 279.


Chapter Entry: Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive

Morillo-Alicea’s investigation into this subject is based on his research into the archives and collections of photographs taken in the early period of U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. His article is not concerned with a formalist perspective of the photographs, but a critical look at what the “existence, collection, and preservation” of these photographs reveals about Puerto Rican history in the aftermath of 1898 and outcome during the Spanish-American War. Diving into the collection at the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the photographs he discovered tell the history of Puerto Rico as imagined by the United States, the colonizer. This research also offers inquiry into how the “colonial archive” and archival processes place the history of the United States as a colonial power in a global context. Morillo-Alicea explores census records, organizational models, education, and the role of bureaucrats in this new Puerto Rico to recognize the way in which power structures produced the visualization of the new colony.

Morillo-Alicea approaches the process of the first U.S. Census taken in Puerto Rico with criticality towards the imagined importance of state counting in this new colony and the role of the census as a “tool of empire.” When looking at a portrait of a group of enumerators for the 1899 Census, the first census taken as a colony of the U.S., his focus is not on personalizing the process of local counting by revealing the identities or social background of the sitters. The dominant male presence, except for one woman sitting in the center wearing black, is not mentioned. Rather the attributes of the photograph that are discussed are the staging of the portrait and the satchels that are worn by the sitters. The group stands and sits in front of a large American flag; a symbol of both the American empire and of the group’s recently acquired identity and status as members of that empire. To Morillo-Alicea, the satchels worn by the enumerator’s is a direct reference to their status as government employees and their responsibility to accurately gathering information on their community. The enumerator’s categorization of race is discussed in the photographic series of men of mixed backgrounds. Posed against the same background, each photograph depicts two male subjects wearing white working clothing but provides little information as to the identity of the subjects. In the back of these photographs the captions provide a glimpse into the system of categorizing race that was developed with the terms “Mulato”, “Type of ‘Niger’ not so clack in P.R.”, “Type of ‘Negro’ very black, Puerto Rico.” This method of posing is reminiscent of English biologist Thomas Huxley’s practice of photographing indigenous tribes in Australia while the text-image relationship suggests the influence of Spanish casta paintings. The content of these photographs, with both image and text, reveals the manner in which Puerto Rican enumerator’s explained and presented the communities that they lived in to the American audience.

Morillo-Alicea goes on to reveal how information was organized within this archive and modeled after British policies and how that shaped the image of Puerto Rico in the United States’ “archival imagination.” To demonstrate how power structures were at work in the new colony, the education of young children is probed by looking into the visualization of the educational narrative: “The photos of children tell the story of Puerto Rico’s modernization, of the U.S. narrative that assured islanders and the world that they were being moved out of barbarism and into modernity”[1].  Creating the school as institution through the construction of new buildings, enforcing the English language inside the classroom, the knowledge and perspectives taught in the classroom, and making young children dress in costume from the American colonial period all contributed to the assimilationist policies put into place by the U.S. government.

Morillo-Alicea delivers his investigation into this subject through the method in his writing, which invites the reader to come along the research journey with him. The reader is offered an article where the research process is revealed and the story behind the discovery of materials is told alongside the analysis. In his text, Morillo-Alicea engages with the work and framework of post-colonial theorists Arjun Appadurai and Homi Bhabha. He cites Appadurai in his discussion on the method of the census as used to promote and reinforce colonial power and the role of the “number in the colonial imagination.” The work of Ann Stoler is used to look at the archive as a way to investigate the manner in which “epistemologies for interpreting the colonial situation are embedded in forms of knowledge colonialism itself produces“ [2].

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (Puerto Rico), Body in Flight (Delta), 2011

In my own engagement with this text, I would like to fast forward to present day depictions of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations and move from dissecting archival photographs to contemporary installation art. Critical outlooks on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico continue to resonate in the art world, both from within the island and out. In 2011, Puerto Ricans Jennifer Allora (born in the United States) and Guillermo Calzadilla (born in Cuba), a husband-wife artist team based in San Juan, represented the United States at the Venice Biennial. This moment was the first time that artists living in Puerto Rico had been chosen to exhibit in the American Pavilion. The artists were chosen by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibition and were presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Lisa Freiman, chairman of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s contemporary art department, proposed and commissioned the project. Allora and Calzadilla’s exhibition, titled Gloria, included six installation works with an interactive and performative function. The exhibition crossed the definitions between installation, sculpture, and performance with works that included two or all of these characteristics. Former U.S. Olympic gymnasts soared, balanced, and flipped on top of two sculptures of airline seats. A U.S. ex-Olympic runner ran on the treadmill that was installed on top of an upturned over military tank outside of the pavilion entrance. Yet the sculptures in themselves possessed the character to stand on their own as commentary on American cultural values. Airline seats were made of wood and looked worn, tired, and uncomfortable. The tanning bed where a classical female figure, the U.S. Capitol’s Statue of Freedom, attempted to lay down in was not large enough for the statue and remained open with its lights flashing its neon blue hues. A church organ that dominated the center of a room functioned as an ATM machine, playing its church music whenever a gallery visitor made a withdrawal.

Looking into the history of Puerto Rico in the American imaginary, which Morillo-Alicea sets us off on, enlightens the experience in viewing Allora and Calzadilla’s installation in the American Pavilion. The exhibition acts as a critique on American cultural values and the fading veil of American imperialism. The tank flipped over could be interpreted as a comment on the backwardness of militarism. The society’s value on appearances is present in the prevalence of treadmills (gym culture) and tanning beds. Money and its relationship to religious elements, or money and its attribution to a religious experience are seen in the church organ with built-in ATM. Earlier this month, a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico, which has been classified as an “unincorporated territory”, was issued giving citizens the chance to vote for territorial status. The second question on the referendum asked to indicate the preferred political status: statehood, independence, or sovereign nation [3].


1. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive by Javier Morillo-Alicea, pg. 138

2. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive, pg. 130



Pinboard #6: Daniel Tisdale

Daniel Tisdale, Rodney King Police Beating, from “The Disaster Series,” 1991.

The series of black and white photographs captures four men in black clothing surrounding one man who is lying on the floor in front of a parked car. This image suspends the moment in which one of the standing men is about to kick the man on the floor. The haziness of the image creates unrecognizable figures whose professional titles or skin color has been obscured only to leave an image of an assault for the viewer to reflect on. Daniel Tisdale has taken an image from an iconic videotape shot by George Holliday of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers following a car chase in 1991. The same image of the assault is duplicated twelve times, described by Lauri Firstenberg as a “Warholian silkscreened grid by which the formation of stereotype through repetition is demonstrated.” Through this grid, the work echoes the progression of a film reel, with movements frozen in time.  The flaws in mechanical reproduction process are revealed in the upper half of the shot that duplicates the car ceiling and heads of the figures.

The significance of the role of the videotape in the infamous trial highlights the nature of the interpretation and framing of the footage. During the trial, the defendant’s lawyers interpreted the video in a manner to justify the amount of force by the accused police officers. This refers back to the status that photography carries as a purveyor of truth. In Gonzalez’s opening statement to her essay Morphologies, she states “the medium of photography has always been allied with truth claims: as evidence in courts of law.” I would also link this work to Nicholas Mirzoeff’s essay on Race, Photography, and the Index where he states in respect to New York States’ decision in 2002 of accepting digital photographs as evidence in domestic violence cases, a reinforcement of the idea that  “Photography did not die. Rather it has become clear that photography has always been and remains a medium susceptible to a range of external interventions.”


Pinboard #5: Memín Pinguín

Memín Pinguín stamps, issued in Mexico, 2005

Memín Pinguín is the cartoon character of a popular Mexican comic book created by Yolanda Vargas Dulché and Sixto Valencia. The cartoon’s protagonist, Memín, is a young black boy drawn with large ears, bulging eyes, and plump pale lips. He is usually drawn in casual garb of a striped red t-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap. The caricature represents an Afro-Mexican and he is drawn so his features resemble that of a monkey, this is heightened further by the difference in how other characters in the series are portrayed. His mother is a prominent character in the series and is depicted as a stout black woman, who wears a housedress and bandana, a reference to her Afro-Caribbean roots. First issued in the 1940’s as part of the comic strip Almas de niño, Memín got his own comic strip in the 1960’s and has since become one of the longest running comic books in Mexico [1].

In 2005, the Mexican government issued a series of five Memín Pinguín stamps in which Memín is drawn in various stances and activities. In one stamp, he wears a three-piece suit and bolero hat while offering the viewer a flower. In a separate stamp he is in a loud white tuxedo with red trim. The stamp showcasing Memín in front of an artwork strengthens his place in the visual culture of Mexico. These stamps stirred a controversy in the United States for its depiction of “racial stereotypes.” The U.S. government condemned the stamps making then White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan state: “Racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images like these have no place in today’s world”[2]. Mexican officials responded in defense of Memín Pinguín and the character’s history in Mexican culture. The mobile nature of the stamp and its access to travel across the countries transformed them from mere postage to cultural agents that spoke of Mexico’s long history and current struggle with race relations.


1. Redrawing the Nation: National Identity in Latin/o American Comics. Ed. Hector Fernandez L’Hoeste and Juan Poblete.


Chapter Entry: The Misrecognition of Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother
source: Library of Congress

In “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity,” Sally Stein sifts through the legacy of a familiar image with a history of misrecognition. Migrant Mother, which Stein asserts is the “most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making” is a portrait of Florence Thompson that Lange took at a labor camp in Nipomo, California in 1936 [1]. Since its conception, the photograph has been criticized from various points of view, and Stein spends the beginning of her essay recording these reactions, from the outrage of Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker, when he learned that Lange had retouched the “documentary” image, to cultural historian Wendy Kozol’s critique of the image as “a quintessential example of the FSA traffic in conservative stereotypes” [2].  Stein’s real interest lay in how Thompson gained iconic status as a white “New Deal Madonna” despite her Cherokee heritage and unmarried status, information that began to circulate as part of the photograph’s history only half a century after it was taken. The paradox of iconicity thus seems to be that Thompson was not the iconic white matriarch that she was initially taken to be; she is instead an icon of the Euro-American tendency to misrecognize Native Americans as both heirs and foils to their own racial identity.

Early in her essay, Stein demonstrates how the image was misrecognized as a symbol of conservative family values. The photograph shows Thompson flanked by two young children as she cradles a sleeping infant. The older children turn away from the camera, using Thompson’s body as a shield, while the baby dozes near her breast. Thompson’s body is thus a source of protection and sustenance, even as her worried eyes betray concern. Stein paraphrases Kozol’s argument that such images of mothers and children “chiefly served to reassure the public in the Great Depression that the most fundamental social unit—the nuclear family—was beleaguered but still strong” [3]. In reality, however, Thompson’s social unit was fractured: Thompson’s first husband died of tuberculosis in 1931, and the infant in the picture is the son of Jim Hill, from whom she would separate in the 1940s.

The perception that Lange’s subject was married and that all of her children had the same father is an example of how photographs invite assumptions that may belie the actual circumstances of the people they depict—a disconnect that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to photography’s false transparency. For spectators bring a wealth of culturally embedded assumptions to bear on the photographs they view, imbuing them with meaning that is external to the image. For instance, in this photograph, there is no patriarch, so why would a spectator assume that Thompson is supported by a stable marriage? That assumption comes not only from what a spectator may want to believe—she might feel better looking at this worried woman and her soiled children if she believes there is a man off screen who is supporting them—it also comes from the context of the photograph, which was indeed a government-endorsed image. Migrant Mother is part of a body of images taken by photographers who were dispatched by the FSA to “make a dent in the world” [4]. Their portraits of struggling Americans elicited a wide range of emotions—empathy, admiration and pride among them. FSA photographs may have been relevatory of American poverty and struggle, but they were also a screen on which spectators could project their own desires, namely about the perseverance of fellow Americans in the wake of catastrophe.

FSA photographs like Migrant Mother invited spectators to see what they both wanted and expected to see. This is not only how a widow with children out of wedlock became a “New Deal Madonna,” it is also how her Native American ancestry was mistaken for European ancestry. Stein shows how the FSA did not favor ethnic diversity by including a passage in which Roy Stryker, the aforementioned head of the FSA, explicitly discourages photographer Arthur Rothstein from photographing Native Americans: He writes,“You know I just don’t get too excited about Indians. I know it is their country and we took it away from them—to hell with it!”  [5].  For me, this is the most interesting part of the story, because it reveals how certain populations were denied visibility in the portrait of Americanness that was articulated through the visual culture of this period. Scholars like Erika Doss have pointed out how the Index of American Design, a visual encyclopedia of American folk and decorative arts that was another federally-funded Depression era initiative, largely depicted the work of Anglo Americans, including only token pieces done by Native Americans, African Americans, Southern European Americans and others who didn’t pass a certain benchmark of whiteness [6].

In her recent book, The History of White People, Nell Painter demonstrates how the category of whiteness has been in flux throughout United States history, expanding and contracting at various historical moments to include peoples of different ethnic backgrounds [7]. The Depression era was a moment when the Anglo Saxon paradigm of whiteness was reasserted in a variety of ways, especially through the veneration of folk art in English (Shaker) and German (Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions. Stein uses the words of Edmund Wilson, a literary critic and social journalist, as a testament to the privileging of Anglo heritage, despite its dilution through racial mixing, in this period: “the pure type of that English race which, assimilated on the frontier to the Indians’ hatchet profile and high cheekbones, inbred in Boston and Virginia, still haunts our American imagination as the norm from which our people have departed, the ideal towards which it ought to tend” [8].

Wilson’s words, particularly his phrasing “haunts our American imagination” reveal how Anglo Americanness has always been more of a fantasy than a reality, and that is certainly the case with Migrant Mother. After the photojournalist Bill Ganzel tracked Thompson down in 1979, the truth about Thompson’s Cherokee heritage was finally acknowledged. Whether Lange failed to be vigilant in recording the personal details of her subject or whether she willfully elided them due to her boss’s open disdain for photographs of Native Americans, the end result is the same: For decades, Thompson has been misrecognized as an ideal Euro American woman, attaining an iconicity that cannot be undone easily. Stein points out, for instance, that a recent book on race in 20th-century America continued the misrecognition of Thompson, reprinting Migrant Mother with a caption that identifies her as a “Nordic” woman and claims, “Her suffering could be thought to represent the nation in ways the distress of a black, Hispanic, Italian, or Jewish woman never could” [9]. The enduring perception that Thompson was a white woman is an example of the persistence of myth. According to Roland Barthes, “It does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” [10].

Perhaps the widespread misrecognition of Thompson is too entrenched to be undone, but Stein’s essay demonstrates how this image is wrapped up in another kind of iconicity—as a representation of  how Euro-Americans have a history of appropriating Native Americans likenesses when imaging their own identities. Artists like Edward S. Curtis pictured Native Americans as a “vanishing race,” an approach that was not only primitivizing but also added gravitas to the definition of Americanness, in the sense that it created an evolutionary depth to the American people, despite the coevalness of native and non-Native Americans. Migrant Mother was taken about a century after President Jackson used the rhetoric of the progression of civilization in a speech to Congress in which he justified the violent means of Indian Removal as  “the extinction of one generation to make room for another” [11].

If the FSA photographs are read as a kind of yearbook of Depression-era Americans, then on the surface Native Americans appear to be as extinct as Jackson intended they would be. The irony is that Migrant Mother, the photograph which has earned the superlative of “Most American Woman” by virtue of its unrivaled circulation, actually pictures a Native American woman passing as a Euro-American woman. The inclusion of Migrant Mother in Only Skin Deep is crucial, because this image and its history of misrecognition demonstrate how racial categories are constructed through subjective perception and projection. Thompson’s skin color was light enough and her motherly obligations were prevalent enough for generations of spectators to project a fantasy of white motherhood onto her, but in reality, her misrecognition and mythologization as a white Madonna reflects more truths about what those spectators wanted to see than truths about what was actually there.


1. pg. 345, Stein, Sally. “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

2. & 3. pg. 346, Stein.

4. See Mora, Gilles, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. FSA: The American Vision. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

5. pg. 352 Stein

6. See Doss, Erika. “American Folk Art’s ‘Distinctive Character:’ The Index of American Design and New Deal Notions of Cultural Nationalism.” In Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design, edited by Virginia Tuttle Clayton. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

7. See Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

8. & 9. pg. 354, Stein

10. pg. 130, Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

11. pg. 79, Truettner, William H. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Quoted in William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 79.

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

Pinboard Entry #6: Black History Painting

Kerry James Marshall
Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man 1646)

In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.

Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall  has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.

In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness  For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.

Only Skin Deep: Part III

Imitation of Life (1959)

We started our discussion of the third section of Only Skin Deep with Lauri Firstenberg’s text, Autonomy and the Archive in America, which deals with the discourse of images from historical archives and the contemporary artists’ response to this archival system. This particular text provided a framework for looking at the other essays in this section, whose focuses deal more with specific cases and artists.

Firstenberg begins her essay with the idea that the photograph served as an unmediated and objective recording process and Barthes’ myth of photographic verity.  This idea is in line with Jennifer Gonzalez’s opening statement in the essay Morphologies, in which she writes that photography has always been allied with the “truth effect.”

Through the image of Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait Exaggerating my black Features/Self-Portrait Exaggerating my White Features (1998) juxtaposed with a photograph of a South Australian Man according to Thomas Huxley’s instructions (1870), we discussed the archive and critical responses to the archival form by contemporary artists. This led to commentaries on photography’s role in the production of racialized subjects (or “others”) and as defining whiteness as non-raced/the standard.

We looked at examples of passing for a certain race embedded in contemporary depictions of blackface, as seen on the television series Mad Men which is set during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the film Imitation of Life (1959). These ideas also resonated with Sally Stein’s essay on Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

In Caroline Vercoe’s essay on Postcards from the South Pacific, she brings up Baudelaire’s claim that photography is more an agent of forgetting than remembering. This notion can be connected not only to GI’s image souvenirs from the South Pacific, but also Toyo Miyatake’s photographs of Manzanar for the yearbook, Our World (1943-1944) in which the reality of an unjust incarceration is both masked and revealed through the work of the photographer.

For a wonderful clip from Imitation of Life (notice the role of the mirror in this scene) click link:



In addition to being relevant to this week’s readings I thought people might be interested in knowing that the images are currently on display at
Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.  To learn more check out :