In a 2018 interview with The Creative Independent, writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman, whose books blend history and imagination in startling ways, called the narrative form a “degraded material,” a view inspired by her poet friends. “It’s so often that narrative is the vehicle for the reproduction of a certain way of looking at the world, a conceptual prisonhouse,” she explained to writer Thora Siemson. The constant in her writing — whether she is exploring the “afterlives of slavery” or the social experiments of young Black women in the early 20th century — is her desire to see what else can be done with the scraps and gaps of archives. Dipping into the fictional and speculative allows for other stories beyond the limits of narrative.
Similar to Hartman, the six artists included in The Black Index, the new exhibition at UC Irvine’s University Art Galleries, could be described as working with another degraded material: portraiture. Invasive colonial photographs, racist iconography used as product mascots, stereotypical tropes in movies and television, the virality of Black death. The United States weaponizes images in service of furthering the codification of anti-Blackness. Black artists have consistently talked back at these images, whether explicitly or obliquely. Curated by Bridget R. Cooks, the exhibition presents works that pursue knottier narratives of self-representation via drawings, sculptures, and digital technology. While traveling beyond the closures of the archives, they question the objectivity of photographs and how they double as instruments of containment.
Lava Thomas’s Mugshot Portraits (2018-) depict ordinary women who organized the Montgomery Bus boycotts in the 1950s, carefully recreating their mugshot photos with Conté and graphite pencil. The lifesize drawings conjure the presence of women often erased from historical narratives, lingering on seemingly supplemental details like a missing glove or a down-turned gaze. The richness of the portraits expose the true function of mugshots: to reduce and dehumanize.
Other artists veer away from realism to explore the instability of the portrait. The Evanesced: The Untouchables (2020) by Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle collects 100 ink drawings inspired by Black women who have been harmed and disappeared. The sinuous brushstrokes honor essences and spirit movements, as Hinkle channels what could have been. Describing them as “unportraits,” Hinkle expresses the psychological pressure of being seen and unseen.
The term “unportraits” could be applied to the rest of the works in the show as well. Dennis Delgado’s The Dark Database (2020) series captures composite facial scans from canonical Black movies, their images obscured by facial recognition software. Alicia Henry’s Analogous III (2020) arranges together a mass of cut-out leather faces. Their expressions are frightening and crude, as if refusing to display the person behind the mask.
By testing the limits of representation, the images collected in the show perform their own refusal. The artists turn away from narratives of containment, in search of what the archives fail to remember.