Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now

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Living Shadows: On Asma Naeem’s ‘Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now’

“Southern gentle lady, / Do not swoon. / They’ve just hung a black man / In the dark of the moon.” “Silhouette” by Langston Hughes rests on one of the middle pages of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now by Asma Naeem, the poem’s white lines centered against black background. “They’ve hung a black man / To a roadside tree / In the dark of the moon / For the world to see.” The word silhouette appears only in the title, not the actual text of the poem. Its presence comes from its absence.

Black Out began as an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., but Naeem’s examination extends to a consideration of how the silhouette rose as a powerful and economical art form—and how it symbolically, and sometimes literally, captures the way we see race in America. In her introduction to the collection, Naeem cites Emily Jackson from The History of the Silhouette (1911): “At its best, black profile portraiture is a thing of real beauty, almost worthy to take its place with the best miniature painting; at its worst, it is a quaintly appealing handicraft, revealing the fashions and foibles, the intimate domestic life and conventions of its day.” In contrast, Black Out offers a more nuanced understanding of silhouettes through image and essay, history and analysis.

The silhouettist Auguste Edouart once received a letter praising his “shadow”—a 19th-century term for silhouettes—which the admirer said was “almost alive and breathing.” For those new to the art form, Penley Knipe’s essay from the collection, although placed last, should be read first. Her anecdote about Edouart begins an essay that offers readers a practical and historical understanding of the art form’s early development—and its particular power. By the 1780s, silhouettes were popular in America, and affordable. “Much less expensive than the portrait miniature,” these silhouettes “were often snipped for a few pennies.” For the first time, “people could possess an inexpensive, nearly instantaneous likeness of themselves or a loved one—before the silhouette, portraiture was for the royal and the wealthy.”

Even amateurs tried their hands at the art form, using “a candle to cast a shadow or a pencil to draw freehand before taking up scissors to create an instant likeness of the sitter.” Whether skilled artist or hobbyist, techniques included full cutouts, busts, hollow-cuts, and the “conversation piece,” where friends or family are collected in a domestic space. One example reproduced in the collection is Edouart’s “Magic Lantern.” Nearly a dozen people are arranged in the family parlor, transfixed by the image projected from the magic lantern—a precursor to the projector. A bandit flees, chased by men on horseback. Pigs and ducks scurry in the street.

Yet what is far more fascinating than the dizzying scene projected on the curtain are the black figures, whose dark bodies feel risen from the paper. Silhouette, performed with skill, is both exquisite and dizzying. In Edouart’s creation, a woman holds a child in front of the image. An old man’s peg leg points in the direction of the image, while an old woman sits, her profile stern. At the back of the room, the family’s African-American servant has opened the door to peek at the show. He is half in the room, half out; his presence is nearly shadow.

Black Out expertly demonstrates that, as an art form and as a symbol, silhouettes have often been about race. Naeem writes that early American silhouettes “attempted to reconcile contradictory views on such pressing issues as colonial independence, slavery, and national identity. The cutting of the body and the head, the contour as a unit of meaning, the Spartan simplicity, and the cumulative uniformity of individuals from all walks of life as one black profile after another—all of these aspects of silhouettes registered highly charged debates of the day.”

“Silhouette portraiture,” Naeem explains, “can be seen as an elision between high art and popular culture wherein European conventions of portraiture—contrived poses and stylized mises-en-scènes—were demoted in favor of simplified profile forms with no accoutrements, illusionism, or artifice.” Silhouettes were fast art, and since the sitter was the subject, silhouettes were instant affirmations of self. “No longer requiring rank or an oil commission to be imaged, lower and middle-class patrons could carry home images of themselves, their own medallions of greatness.”

That power was not only personal. The silhouette style was used by abolitionist William Elford in his often-reproduced text “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.” Naeem shows how Elford expertly used the silhouette style to make a political, and moral, point: “With the voiding of interior details of each person, the bodies inhumanely appear as cargo or things, even coffins, and the viewer quickly gathers the magnitude of the brutality from the cumulative effect of the graphic patterning.”

Black Out documents the pre-Civil War heyday of silhouettes but also demonstrates how contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Kumi Yamashita reinvent the art form. The result is a book that should serve as both introduction and inspiration; hopefully, even more scholars will consider the implications of the silhouette. As Naeem so appropriately writes, “shadows are always around us. Beyond manifestations of light and presence, beyond indicating the position of the sun, they encompass all of our unique places in the material and immaterial worlds.”

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