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'African American Life and Family' set to open at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910-1990), Jitterbugging in Juke Joint near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1939). Gelatin silver print. NEA Photography Purchase Grant.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- All exhibitions during the MFA’s 50th anniversary year are inspired by and revolve around the collection. African American Life and Family draws on the Museum’s impressive collection of photography, as well as key loans, and primarily reveals how blacks viewed and presented themselves through images. The show opens Saturday, January 17, on what has become Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in St. Petersburg, and continues through Sunday, May 3. Curatorial Assistant Sabrina Hughes has curated this important show.

In 1900, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois created an exhibition of photographs titled The American Negro for that year’s World’s Fair in Paris. He selected images that showed refined, educated, and prosperous African Americans, challenging prevalent views and expectations of the time. Exhibiting photographs of and by African Americans introduced visual complexity to counteract deliberate distortion. Negative imagery could be thwarted by pictures of dignity, pride, success, and beauty.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, depictions of African Americans in theater, art, and the media often took the form of caricature, which exaggerated and simplified its subjects. Because of photography’s empirical nature, representing a “truthful” image of what was before the camera, photographs can define reality. They also have the power to contest dominant modes of representation when people have control over their own image.

The photographs in African American Life and Family, including many portraits that would have been displayed in the home, provided a way to resist misrepresentation. Snapshots, postcards, portraits, and other typically private photographs became “galleries” of black America—the world hidden from public view or forced into oblivion by the constant flood of stereotypes.

Noted critic bell hooks has written that the camera “in black life [became] a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced. Photography was more fascinating to masses of black folks than other forms of image-making because it offered the possibility of immediate intervention.” All of the images in African American Life and Family were created before passage of the American Civil Rights Act in 1964, making them part of the resistance and intervention described by hooks.

In addition to vernacular photography, the exhibition will feature two works by the gifted photographer James Van Der Zee, who captured the growing black middle-class in Harlem through the mid-1940s. (Van Der Zee played a leading role in the Harlem Renaissance.) Addison Scurlock was a respected portraitist in Washington D. C.; his portrait of Booker T. Washington is a highlight of the exhibition.

Charles “Teenie” Harris’s picture conveys the energy of a Pittsburgh jazz club from 1945, and Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph of a juke joint in Mississippi also projects a celebratory mood. They both point to the central role music has played in African American life and survival. African Americans have created much of our country’s most inventive and singular music.

The images in African American Life and Family pay tribute to the richness of black culture, as well as to the MFA’s 50th anniversary. The photography collection, in its quality, diversity, and scope, is one of the hallmarks and great achievements of the Museum of Fine Arts.

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