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15 Nov 2023

Major Exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum Will Explore Themes of Black Presence and Absence

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(New York, New York) Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Sq., Columbus Ave. at W. 65th St.) from November 15, 2023, through March 24, 2024. 

Comprised of approximately 125 works, including key loans of overmantel paintings, portraits, needlework, works on paper, photographs, and other vernacular forms, the show will focus on representations of Black figures in New England and the Mid-Atlantic from the late 17th through early 19th century. The exhibition challenges conventional narratives that have minimized early Black histories in the North, revealing the complexities and contradictions of the region’s history. 

Despite their vital importance, the experiences and contributions of Black figures in the Northeast have often been ignored or minimized. As a reflection of this, the content of the exhibition is also shaped by considerations of absence. By incorporating works that do not feature Black figures, in spite of historical Black presence within the same spaces, the exhibition will encourage visitors to consider how this erasure of marginalized voices continues to shape our understanding of the past.

“This exhibition and accompanying book fill a crucial gap in our understanding of early American history and are reflective of the deep level of research led by curators Emelie Gevalt, RL Watson, and Sadé Ayorinde,” said Jason T. Busch, Becky and Bob Alexander Director & CEO at AFAM. “We are grateful to our lenders, funders, and staff for their support in this important endeavor.” 

The exhibition’s interpretation delves into themes including slavery, resistance, community-building, and memory-making to develop a deeper understanding of the experiences of Black individuals and the reasons their stories have often gone underrepresented. The curatorial team has gathered a wealth of contextual information about the lives of Black people in this region. Given the ultimate limits of archival documentation about specific people, the exhibition will incorporate additional forms of interpretation, including descendant oral histories and responses from contemporary Black artists.

Unnamed Figures will feature loans from over three dozen organizations and private collections, including a selection from the Burns Collection and Archive of more than 50 early photographic portraits of  Black subjects. Juxtaposed with the other works in the exhibition that evoke absence, these tintypes and cabinet cards from the Burns Archive will make for a powerful display of Black creative agency in the nineteenth century. 

Major support for this exhibition is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, with additional support from Julia F. Alexander, the American Folk Art Society, Monty Blanchard and Leslie Tcheyan, the David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions, David and Dixie De Luca, Laurent Delly and Lybra Clemons, Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, the Robert Lehman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, the Dorothea & Leo Rabkin Foundation, Gail Wright Sirmans, Donna L. Skerrett, Ramondy Thermidor, and Elizabeth and Irwin Warren.

Curatorial Credits

The exhibition is co-curated by Emelie Gevalt, Curatorial Chair for Collections and Curator of Folk Art, AFAM; RL Watson, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, Lake Forest College; and Sadé Ayorinde, Terra Foundation Predoctoral Fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 


The contributors to the forthcoming book, Unnamed Figures: Black Presence And Absence in the Early American North are scholars and researchers with expertise in American art history, material culture, African American history and literature, and other related topics. The 300-page publication draws on years of research and archival work. It will contextualize the exhibition as well as expand upon its themes, including how Black representations may have been further marginalized or misconstrued by collectors of early American art and material culture. 

The book includes a foreword by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Contributors to the publication include the exhibition’s curators as well as Dr. Virginia Anderson, Kelli Racine Barnes, Michael J. Bramwell, Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, Anne Strachan Cross, Dr. Jill Vaum Rothschild, Dr. Jonathan Michael Square, Lea C. Stephenson, Jennifer Van Horn, and Gordon Wilkins.

Exhibition Lenders 

Lenders to Unnamed Figures include: the Maryland Center for History and Culture, the Marblehead Museum, Hampton National Historic Site, Massachusetts Historical Society, Newport Historical Society, the Burns Archive, the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, South County History Center, National Portrait Gallery, American Antiquarian Society, The New-York Historical Society, Historic Deerfield, the Hingham Historical Society, Princeton University, Museum of the City of New York, Library Company of Philadelphia, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, The Connecticut Historical Society, Winterthur Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, William Butterworth Foundation, the Fenimore Art Museum, Worcester Art Museum, the New York Public Library, Albany Institute of History & Art, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Dietrich American Foundation, the Saint Louis Art Museum, Addison Gallery of American Art, the Shelburne Museum, the Stockbridge Museum, the New England Historical Genealogical Society, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. 

Exhibition Partner

After the exhibition concludes at AFAM it will travel to Historic Deerfield, where it will be on view from May 1, 2024, to August 4, 2024.

“We are thrilled to be hosting this important exhibition,” said John Davis, Historic Deerfield President. “We are grateful to the American Folk Art Museum for entrusting us with Unnamed Figures, and we look forward to sharing it with our visitors, and providing a glimpse into Black visual culture in early New England.”

About the American Folk Art Museum 

Founded in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place.