ALISON COFRANCESCO ’20
From October 12th until December 9th, the Widener Gallery in the Austin Arts Center will be holding Art from the Archive, a show curated by Trinity professor and photographer Pablo Delano and academic and artist Louis Watts.
The show delves into American imperialist perceptions of Puerto Rico during the 1900s, as well as Black history and culture in America.
It is composed of artifacts including books, advertisements, documentary photographs, and even commercial products, all of which refer to white American ideas about other races. The pieces are presented on large, blown-up posters, underscoring the monumental themes of racism in America.
Both Watts and Delano have focused on themes of race and identity throughout their bodies of work. Delano’s recent work draws from historic portrayals of Puerto Rico. He collects artifacts that help reveal cultural perceptions of people of color in the United States. He titles it “Museum of the Old Colony,” after an old brand of soda that continues to be produced and sold, despite the connotations of its name. Delano views his collection as a work of art rather than a sociological historical study, since it focuses on the emotional impact of objects and photographs. In order to come to any sort of resolution. Delano’s work also focuses on the need to analyze and react to painful historic memories.
Watt’s work focuses on the evolution of Black culture, and how it is historically shaped by outside forces. He has written books on the subject, as well as taken interest in artifacts. In the Widener gallery show, Watts looks at how the creations of biased or racist people reveal their opinions and true intentions. The objects he presents are taken out of their original physical contexts and photographed alone against black backgrounds, leaving it up to the viewer to shape their own emotional response to the pieces.
Delano and Watts want their viewers to come to the show ready to be both interested and challenged. The pieces they present are not easy to look at. They contain harsh stereotypes and evidence of dehumanizing attitudes towards people of color. Even when the pride and beauty of the cultures are acknowledged by imperialists, the cultures are undercut by the implication that they are disposable and lesser. One image of a young Puerto Rican woman was originally printed with the informational blurb, “The higher classes of white people hold themselves as strictly in their own society as in any other county. This attractive colored girl is one of the higher type of that race.” This troubling statement shows how Puerto Ricans were still portrayed as less human, even when their class status and physical beauty was complemented.
Yet, the show is not solely meant to evoke negative feelings. According to Watts, there is an interesting duality in many of the artifacts. One such piece is an image of two boys dressed in rags. It is captioned, “Porto Rican boys in their Sunday dresses,” meant to make fun of the boys’ tattered clothing. Despite the satirical commentary, the image of the children is a beautiful one. They confront the camera with confidence, feeling none of the shame that the caption attempts to impose on them. In contrast with the mocking attitude of the photographer, the image itself can be seen as a source of pride and history. It is, in its simplest form, an image of kids being kids. The layers of meaning in these images are what make the “Art from the Archive” show so intriguing. It is up to the viewer to decide what they take away from each image.
The idea of American imperialist racism is not a new one. Every student who learned American history had a part of the semester that addressed the ways that American imperialists justified intervening in territory they had no real claim to. We all probably saw one or two political cartoons illustrated in a textbook. However, “Art from the Archive” goes farther than basic acknowledgement of racism. It reveals just how pervasive these images were, and calls us to question how these underlying ideas and stereotypes continue in our current world. It asks us to be responsible viewers, to make ourselves uncomfortable, and explore how and why the imagery affects us.