Entering the Wendel White exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum, one gets a sensation similar to that when visiting the Holocaust Museum. Here are the artifacts, in a space as quiet as a funeral home, that tell the stories of a people gone by, a.k.a. ghosts. It is somber, quiet, like paying respects to the dead. Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial comes to mind, as well as Art Spiegelman’s twin shadows of the towers — so much can be said with a large mass of black space. White envelops his artifacts of African American history in black, where they take on the light.
White will lead a gallery talk Friday, May 8 at noon at the New Jersey State Museum. “Wendel A. White: Manifest” is on view through Sunday, May 10.
The professor of art at Richard Stockton College is known for his landscapes of African-American cultural history, including a series of portraits of black towns in southern New Jersey and “Schools for the Colored,” a portion of which was recently exhibited in the Gallery at Rider University.
The 36 photographs in “Manifest” continue White’s explorations to “seek out the ghosts and resonant memories expressed in various aspects of the material world,” says the winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
“I am drawn to the stories dwelling within a spoon, a cowbell, a book, a photograph, or a partially burned document. The remnants present in material culture are haunted with spirit — the idea that the object was touched by some body.”
A lock of hair on white paper with the name of abolitionist Frederick Douglass penned within its creases; a colorful quilt folded so the name of the maker, W. Black, stitched in black thread, is visible; a slave bill of sale with red sealing wax; a small book of numbered verse on which the lens has focused on the line “6. Let not any iniquity have dominion over me. Psa. 119:133” — all these items remind us to “never forget.”
The objects, though small, become powerful in these large-scale photographic images. A rusty doorknob with peeling paint becomes a thing of beauty, radiating something holy in the way it is lit. There are tintypes of unknown African-American soldiers and a yellow flaking AME Church Journal from Riverton, New Jersey. A lunch box, a slave collar, a class ring, a drum, a photograph of a lynching pasted onto a page of an album with the caption “Rioters on the South Side Court House, Sept 28, 1919.”
Much has been written about the diminishing interest in fine art photography in an era when millions of selfies and cell phone images of food and cats proliferate, but White’s photography is proof that the form, in the hands of a true artist, is alive and well and vital in conveying cultural history.
“These representations of objects, documents, photographs, and books, stored in cases and file cabinets, are imbued with the bigger story they tell,” says curator of fine arts Margaret O’Reilly. “White’s ‘Manifest’ project transforms the usually small and often fragile remnants of the struggle for freedom and equality into images larger in scale than the original subjects.” It is an effort to seek out objects in public/private collections that represent the material remains of slavery, abolition, segregation, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, civil rights advocate Albion Tourgee, American writer Zora Neale Hurston, Harlem, and the U.S. Civil War and the Civil Rights Era.
The word manifest: it makes us think of Manifest Destiny, or the manifests of slave ships that kept track of their human inventory. “All of those exist in a way in which the word ‘manifest’ is meaningful,” says White, and although he has published the collection in book form through Chroma at the California Institute for Integral Studies, the project is ongoing. There are more institutions and collections to visit, to document, to present as beautiful compositions. A New Jersey State Council for the Arts fellowship is enabling him to do this.
The project began when White was a visiting faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology and he discovered some of these objects in the collection of the University of Rochester, including the hair sample from Frederick Douglass and the first book Douglass bought after becoming a free man.
“It got me thinking about what is held in public collections related to African-American history,” says White, a resident of Galloway Township. “My projects in the past 25 years all connect to the black community.” Through an artist residency in Omaha White looked at different collections in the state historical society, then in western New York, the Rutgers library, private collections, Cape May County Cultural & Heritage Museum, and in Eatonville, Florida. He received funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation as part of a larger project celebrating the work of Zora Neale Huston.
“She died in poverty and without recognition,” says White. “She was rediscovered by Alice Walker and invigorated in our consciousness. (Her novel) ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is an account of the southern black experience. I’m very fond of it.”
Born in Newark in 1956, White first became interested in photography at Montclair High School. His parents — a social worker mother and attorney father — had separated when he was young, and while neither was involved in the arts, they didn’t discourage his interests.
“Both were very important to my work in different ways,” says White. “My mother had a strong interest in the history and narratives of family and family genealogy. My mother’s closest friend and my godmother was a teacher in the Newark public schools. She was an advocate for black history education, and whenever I saw her she quizzed me on black history trivia. These two were clearly influential in planting the seeds of history and narrative in my work. As a teenager my mother let me setup our bathroom as a make-shift darkroom. My father was also an encouraging presence, helping to pay for art school tuition, attending exhibitions, and through many conversations about building a career in the arts.”
Holidays spent at his grandmother’s house in Philadelphia also had an effect. There he heard stories about the family farm in Bertie County, North Carolina, riding on the train’s colored car, and civil rights. He would photograph large family reunions, and a growing interest in the photography of Bruce Davidson and Gordon Parks inspired him to visit galleries in New York. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in the mid to late 1970s, where he says there were no artists of color, or women, teaching photography. The University of Texas in Austin, where he earned his master’s degree, was another white male bastion.
After graduate school, while living in Brooklyn, White continued shooting while working in a camera store, where he met influential photographers who made important connections for him. He patched together different jobs: adjunct at the School of Visual Arts, teaching at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, organizing photo shoots at Essence magazine. He joined the faculty at Stockton in 1986.
White plans to continue “Manifest” “in various segments over time,” he says. “I don’t envision an end point. I’m infinitely curious about how these wound up in collections.”
The photographs were made with a large format view camera, placed close to the object, which is surrounded by black velvet. They were shot on film that is scanned and printed digitally. Only available lighting was used. The objects are photographed on site — they typically cannot be removed from the collection.
“A photograph is a portal in time,” says White. “We look at the photograph and it takes us back in time to when the photographer was behind the lens. We’re encountering objects in the past and responding in the present.”
White believes viewers play a role in bringing their own narrative to these objects. “I hope I’m making work that leaves openings for that, to resonate with people and provoke various ways of thinking about the visual world and the narrative of African Americans in America. I’m interested in their presence from the earliest settlers right up to the civil rights era.” Why end there? “With the voting rights act of 1964, that’s the beginning of a process when rights and citizenship began. We have all kinds of complicated racial questions to answer, but that’s a good point to stop — the beginning of an era to ask questions about race in a new context,” he says.
As an artist, “I was most interested in making the resulting image satisfactory in a formal way, and what it evoked without knowing the narrative.” For example, the lock of Fred Douglass’s hair: What makes it work as art is that the photo is pleasing and satisfactory and layered with information. “It’s an extraordinary lock of hair connecting to an important historical figure. The library held onto it because it is an interesting looking object. All we know is what we can tell by looking. A lock of hair was a keepsake, a totem, a memento, a piece of a body — it was more common than today. Men would have pocket watch chains woven from their wives’ hair. The lock of hair would transmit affection. Today we have photographs.”
Wendel A. White: Manifest, The New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Through Sunday, May 10. $5 suggested admission. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum.