Faces of Resistance

Portrait Gallery, NMAAHC Team Up for Exhibit

Posted October 17, 2007 at 6:11pm

A new exhibit inspired by the words of Henry Highland Garnet, an abolitionist and clergyman in the mid-1800s, will debut Friday at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” gets its title from a speech Garnet gave in 1843 while advocating action among a group of free blacks: “Strike for your lives and liberties … Let your motto be resistance!

Resistance! RESISTANCE! No opposed people have ever secured Liberty without resistance.” The exhibit, a collaboration between the the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, consists of 100 photographs selected from the Portrait Gallery’s collections.

“It is a great honor for the National Portrait Gallery to have its collection of photographs of African Americans featured in the first exhibition presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter said. “These images and this exhibition examine how photographers and their subjects worked together to challenge demeaning stereotypes and shape new attitudes about race and the testing of the possibilities of American life.”

Deborah Willis, the guest curator of the exhibition who selected the images from the Portrait Gallery’s extensive photography collection, points out a distinguishing picture of two black men in the halls of Congress that help define the purpose of the exhibition.

In the picture, the first black Congressman from New York City, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D), and Stokely Carmichael, the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party who was active in the civil rights movement, are shown laughing together in a Congressional office corridor. The men were born 33 years apart and represented two different generations in the campaign for civil rights — yet the two prominent men join together in resistance and equality.

Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Jimi Hendrix, A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X are just a few of the figures whose images are included the exhibit. Among the photographers represented in the exhibition are Berenice Abbott, James VanderZee, Doris Ulmann, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and Carl Van Vechten.

The theme of the exhibit is reinforced through the portraits of these well-known abolitionists, athletes, artists, scientists and scholars, who illustrate how they used their work to put up resistance to negative attitudes about race and class through 150 years of U.S. history.

“Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, almost all black America embraced Garnet’s plea to ‘let your motto be resistance,’ based on ‘the circumstances that surround you,’” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” opens at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday and is on display through March 2, 2008.