ABINGDON — There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding one of curator Emily Jordan’s favorite pieces in a new exhibit, “Black History in Appalachia & Beyond,” at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon.
The oil painting on a rich gold background is a portrait of East Tennessee artist Samuel L. Nicely, who shared his African and Appalachian roots through sculpture, drawing, pottery, masks and crafts using a mix of media.
“Portrait” was actually discovered at a flea market. The mystery? Although it is signed by R. Robinson, no one knows the painter, according to Jordan, who created the exhibit.
“I really like this piece because it’s almost anonymous,” said Jordan, the museum’s curator of fine and decorative arts. “The artist did sign it, but the reason it was at the Reece Museum at ETSU [East Tennessee State University] was because somebody saw it at a flea market and they recognized Sammie because he was a local artist, but nobody recognized who the artist was or why he painted it. I found that intriguing.”
The piece also resonates with Jordan, an artist who particularly likes portraits, because she appreciates the skill of the painter, who captured Nicely in a quiet, seemingly contemplative mood. It is one of only a few portraits of the artist, who died in 2015 in Morristown.
The exhibit opened Feb. 23, just in time for Black History Month, and runs through April 2 in the museum’s World Fine Art Gallery. It’s part of the museum’s McGlothlin Exhibition Series.
“Black History in Appalachia & Beyond” is Jordan’s baby — it was her idea, and she chose the pieces and set up the show.
She is passionate about historical influences on contemporary art. When she came to William King in March 2022 from Nashville, she said she was looking through the museum’s past exhibition files and noticed that there had been no emphasis on the diverse communities of the middle Appalachian region.
“I think it’s been sort of whitewashed in history,” Jordan said.
The William King Museum of Art
The William King Museum of Art is billed as “never the same museum” of visual arts and cultural heritage. Housed in a historic 1913 former school building, it features galleries showcasing art of the region and of the world, both contemporary and historic. It’s open seven days a week and all the exhibits are free.
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She wanted to change that. So she came up with the idea for the show, which she describes as “highlighting some more local histories and how Southern as well as Appalachian influences have contributed to really, really famous contemporary Black artists’ work.”
The invention of the daguerreotype, the first type of photography, was the beginning of self-presentation through visual culture for many African Americans. It was an easy tool to use for a population with no fine art training and little access to materials, she said.
“Before photography was invented, African Americans had no way of portraying themselves in their own media. They had no way of communicating how they wanted to be viewed in popular media,” she said.
By the mid-19th century, this country was riddled with white supremacy and racial caricatures and cartoons that degraded African Americans, she added.
“Though they had little means of reaching widespread audiences, Black visual artists used the media technology at the time to promote Black leadership and respectability and to counteract the racism and hate that slavery established,” Jordan said in a news release about the exhibit. “As photography was just becoming a popular medium in the country, many Black artists and activists chose to photograph successful members of their community — a realistic representation of a race that was being caricatured and stereotyped in popular printed media.”
Compared to the more local and regional storytelling of Black visual culture, the exhibit highlights the contemporary works of popular artists whose pieces integrate the history of self-fashioning vs. public image, the release said.
Harking back to times of emancipation, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Elizabeth Catlett and Whitfield Lovell embody the historical influence of contemporary art, Jordan said.
One of the most distinctive pieces in the show, and another of Jordan’s favorites, is by Walker from “The Emancipation Approximation,” on loan from the Fine Arts Collection at Vanderbilt University.
The mural-sized black-and-white silhouette cutouts were set in the antebellum South and depict life at the time, relationships and the atrocities of slavery. The scene included in the exhibit is the fifth in a 27-part series by Walker, who Jordan described as one of the most famous African American artists working today.
Another striking piece is a photo by Nashville artist Carlton Wilkinson called “Together.” The black-and-white image shows a tender embrace between two Black subjects, who are nude, with a dramatic light falling across them.
Jordan said she wanted to include the 1995 photo because it depicts a “dramatic juxtaposition” from the types of photos taken during slavery and after the Civil War, when the subjects had to be “very put together, very stern and very respectable.”
“It’s very important that Carlton showed this image of intimacy. He showed these two human beings being very vulnerable with each other,” which is in sharp contrast to the photos of African Americans in the past, she said.
One side of the gallery is a black-and-white wall vinyl that serves as the museum’s homage to the civil rights movement. The idea of Alyssa Justice, the museum’s former marketing director, it features protest signs from prominent civil rights demonstrations, such as the “I AM A MAN” signs held during a demonstration led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
The font used for the exhibition is called Freight, originally drawn in 2005 by Joshua Darden, who is considered to be the first Black typeface designer. Expanded several times over, the Freight collection of typefaces is renowned for its historical innovation and ongoing popularity, Jordan said.
In a room next to the gallery, visitors can view all or part of another layer of the exhibition, the 2014 documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photography and the Emergence of a People” on loan by the filmmaker, Thomas Allen Harris. The film ties together the historical background of photographic portraiture and how that has influenced many Black artists today, Jordan said.
Visitors have a few more days to take in another of Jordan’s exhibits, “Toyland: Artifacts of Youth,” which closes March 5. It showcases toys from the past and features items from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, including dollhouses, dolls, a rocking horse, a sled, games, toy animals and cars, children’s clothing and many other items.
On April 17, the next exhibit, “Contemplating Character,” opens. It’s a traveling exhibition from Los Angeles about portrait art and features American, European and South American artists and their work. Some of the subjects are famous and some are anonymous.