Forget Me Not: Photography Between Poetry and Politics

February 11th-May 17th, 2015

William Anderson, Untitled, 1978. Gelatin silver print. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums © William Anderson
William Anderson, Untitled, 1978. Gelatin silver print. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums © William Anderson

The construction and preservation of historical memory have been central to photography since its inception. Yet, both memory and photography offer partial, fragmented, and incomplete traces of recordable phenomena. Moreover, artists and exhibition frameworks can influence and even interrupt conventional ways of seeing and reading photographic images of an earlier period. These interstices are generative, enabling us to receive and probe pictorial archives anew. Drawn from the University Museums’ African American art collection, Forget Me Not: Photography between Poetry and Politics foregrounds the photographic arts as testimony and remembrance, aesthetic document and encomium.

Clarissa Sligh, Reading Dick and Jane With Me, 1989. Folio detail. Special Collections, of the University of Delaware Library © Clarissa Sligh
Clarissa Sligh, Reading Dick and Jane With Me, 1989. Folio detail. Special Collections, of the University of Delaware Library © Clarissa Sligh

What do photographs know? How do they speak to us about the recorded past and its relationship to the present? From the late nineteenth-century portraits taken by Augustus Washington and Gallo W. Cheston to P. H. Polk’s photographs of Tuskegee Airmen, Forget Me Not commemorates individual, communal, and national narratives.

Portrait of Major Octavius V. Catto. Hand-colored salted paper print, enlargement of photograph by Gallo W. Cheston, pre-1871. University Museums, Gift of Mary Christine Hevner
Portrait of Major Octavius V. Catto. Hand-colored salted paper print, enlargement of photograph by Gallo W. Cheston, pre-1871. University Museums, Gift of Mary Christine Hevner

Remembered here are troubling histories of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement, legacies of a segregated America as well as persistence, resistance, and the creativity of its opposition. Artists and their work “talk back,” as it were, offering counterarchives that challenge incomplete narratives and reconstitute notions of self and community, nation and belonging. “Making my art has become a way of learning what I know, a way of being conscious of how and why I learned it, a way to heal the scars and learn new truths,” notes the visual artist and essayist Clarissa Sligh. A selection of Sligh’s artist’s books, creative diaries of kinship and conflict, are among the works featured in Forget Me Not.

Aspiration, family, and love; ritual, beauty, and performance; authority, autonomy, and resilience are among the themes evoked by the works on view. Through images that range from elegant to the elegiac, Forget Me Not showcases work by artists active from the 1840s to the present day, among them James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Bert Andrews, Carrie Mae Weems, Ming Smith, William Anderson and Wendel White.

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