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23 Oct 2023

Call for Papers for the 2024 Elizabeth and Irwin Warren Folk Art Symposium

‘The Picture Is Still Out There’: Reframing Black Presence in the Collections of Early American Art and Material Culture

Two-day Virtual Symposium  |  Friday February 23rd and Friday March 8th, 2024

“…Even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw, is still out there,” says one of Toni Morrison’s characters in her masterpiece Beloved. Reflecting on this process of Black “re-memory”, the symposium “The Picture Is Still Out There’: Reframing Black Presence in the Collections of Early American Art and Material Culture” presents curatorial practices and scholarship that affirm African American presence in early American art and material culture.

The two-day online symposium is organized in connection with the exhibition Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North, which will be on view from November 15, 2023–March 24, 2024. Drawing inspiration from the research behind this exhibition, the symposium serves as a platform for a broader consideration of museum practices in relation to folk art, early American history and issues of anti-Black racism.

Art scholars, museum curators and public historians are invited to gather, share and discuss their efforts in celebrating and reframing the early contributions of African American individuals to the field of art. Talks will consider early material culture from global and historically marginalized perspectives, acknowledging gaps of history, knowledge and care. This virtual symposium will also present new methods of preserving, acquiring and exhibiting that address colonialist and racist ideologies while rethinking accountability, transparency and language choices in interpretation. This will be a unique opportunity to approach the colonial past and its continuities in museums and public institutions.

We invite proposals for 20-minute papers that revisit traditional narratives of early American art by offering new considerations of museum collections, positioning African American models and artists as the principal subject of inquiry. Topics may engage directly with interpretation, curatorial practice, collecting and exhibition histories of early American art and material culture with artworks and materials from the late 17th through mid-19th centuries.

Submissions by emerging scholars are particularly encouraged to promote expanded scholarship in this field. We are able to offer an honorarium, as well as complimentary membership to the museum, and a copy of the Unnamed Figures book. Please send a 250-word abstract and CV to by the extended deadline date: November 27, 2023, 11:59 p.m. EDT.

Possible lines of inquiry include:

  • Case studies of African American histories from the late 17th through mid-19th centuries
  • New narratives on early Black representation
  • Expanded and intersectional approaches to early material culture, visual culture, and art through the lens of critical race and Black feminist theory
  • Connections between folk art and early African American art, artisanship and representation
  • Case studies on the reorganization and reframing of permanent collections of American art with a focus on Black presence
  • Challenges of including African American subjects who have been omitted from public history and dominant narratives
  • Questions of silence, erasure and gaps in collections and archives.

‘The Picture Is Still Out There’:  Reframing Black Presence in the Collections of Early American Art and Material Culture” is an online symposium organized by Emelie Gevalt, Curatorial Chair of the Collections & Curator of Folk Art, AFAM, Rachel Rosen, Director of Learning and Engagement, AFAM, and Mathilde Walker-Billaud, Curator of Programs and Engagement, AFAM, in honor of Elizabeth and Irwin Warren, dedicated advocates of the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM).


Left: James Eights (1798–1882), East Side Market Street from Maiden Lane South, Albany, 1805, Albany, New York, c. 1850, Watercolor on paper. Albany Institute of History and Art, bequest of Ledyard Cogswell, Jr., 1954.59.68 

Right: Girl from the Heuston Family, Sampler, Brunswick, Maine, c. 1830, silk on linen. Collection of Alexandra Peters