by Mary Beth Ray
Perhaps it’s a function of descending from a long line of pack rats, but since I was a child, I have been fascinated by attic boxes of portraits of mostly unnamed ancestors: sepia photographs, pastels, and small framed silhouettes. Who were these bearded gents and stoic but elegant women? Who is that wide-eyed girl with ringlets in the sailor suit? When, where and how did they live? Do they look like me?
Maybe it’s our human connection, but seeing portraits, whether or not we’re related to the subject, feels intensely personal. And so it is with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery.
The museum has experienced a huge surge in attendance thanks to the recent unveiling of the portraits of President and Mrs. Obama. Much has been written about these stunning paintings, which are worth a visit on their own. And it’s always a thrill to see the other 43 presidents, from the grand and stodgy founders to the fresh and complex paintings of the 20th and 21st centuries.
But the current exhibit, “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now,” provides a whole new perspective on the definition of a portrait. Historically, these fast, cheap cut-out paper portraits captured both rich and poor, free and enslaved. In addition to the fascinating historical silhouettes – including this Liverpool Ware jug depiction of Rev. Absalom Jones of Philadelphia in about 1808 –
– there is the charming Maibaum or Maypole dance, by Kristi Malakoff, which despite its lack of color and limited dimension fills the space with lightness, joy and movement.
The aptly named Profile, by Kumi Yamashita, magically draws humanity out of data. The stark letters and numbers can’t possibly be the source of the human visage, or can they?
But my favorite by far is the colorful “Origami,” also by Yamashita. Surrounded by black and white, these colorful blocks leap into sight. A cursory view makes one wonder why colorful crumpled construction paper on a wall counts as portraiture, or even art. But as you look closer, you see the brilliance of her process.
Once again, Yamashita creates humanity from an unlikely source: Light, paper and shadow give birth to a new people. These new people are not defined by their clothes, background or historical context. They are not black or white, and each profile is unique.
Like the family portraits in my attic boxes, these people are not in the history books. And when the exhibit ends, they will be tossed and forgotten.
“Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” will be open through March 10, 2019, and it is free. Learn more here. The docent-led tours are excellent. From Forest Hills, ride the Red Line from the Van Ness Metro to Gallery Place/Chinatown.