Season Event

Contemporary Exhibition Series: Progeny by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas

  • February 1, 2012 - February 29, 2012

Fine Art Gallery


Opening Reception: February 16 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Exhibition Lecture: February 16 at 1:30 p.m.
In the joint exhibit Progeny, we are introduced to Deborah Willis’s literal progeny, Hank Willis Thomas, and to the progeny of her artistic efforts, the remarkable photographs presented here in dialogue with Hank’s. Standing beside this scene, however, is her other progeny—her work as curator and historian of photography and visual culture by and about African Americans.

Willis has the distinction of having opened what was, before her efforts, an archive largely unknown to historians and the public alike: the images made by African American photographers starting from the earliest days of photographic activity. Aside from family collections and the work of a few prominent African American photographers, the rich legacy of work by black photographers during the first 120 years of photographic history was hidden away and largely unknown.

Willis’s Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (WW Norton, 2000), the first general history of African-American photographers, reflected Willis’s lifetime of work retrieving the work of black photographers from the privacy of family archives or from obscurity within public archives like those of the Smithsonian Institution, where Willis worked for many years. Part of Willis’s determination to make these images available was to lend the weight and heft of canonicity to the extraordinary images that she and other photo historians had unearthed over several decades.

Her other purpose, however, was one that has been a motive force for her work since her earliest days of fascination with photography. The work of black photographers was not just representation of black lives; it was a means of self-representation, and as such was a vital resource for African Americans seeking to understand themselves and their history. In Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (New Press, 1994), Willis collected essays by 16 prominent African Americans in which they reminisced about the way in which an encounter with a specific photograph affected their lives.

Willis has also grappled with the complex question of how and why stereotypical, degrading or violent representations of African Americans should be recirculated in the present. Her response, thoughtfully considered, was to bring them into the light of day. As Willis and her collaborator Carla Williams wrote in the conclusion to The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Temple UP, 2002), “Our purpose has been to situate these images—the affirming as well as the problematic—within their historical context and thus to invite further discussion and study. (198)” Suppressed, Willis and Williams suggested, the images are no less a continuing influence on black women’s present day assessment of their bodies; released into the open, the images become available to black women themselves, including black women artists and photographers, to mourn, get angry over, and to reframe as a part of reclaiming their own bodies from the visual legacies of enslavement.

These histories, these now-open archives, these new opportunities for self-creation, are Deborah Willis’s progeny too.

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