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14 Feb 2024

Notes on Style: A Discussion with BlackMass on Portraiture and Personhood

“We are thinking about Black life. And when thinking of Black life, we can not escape the image; both public and private. Particularly, we are thinking of how Black folks want to be seen. What are the images we share? How do we want to be ‘seen’? Over the years, we [BlackMass] have been collecting photobooth and studio portraits. These portraits can be considered, vernacular images; images of everyday life. In these portraits, there are symbols of who these folks were, or at least who they want us to know them to be. The clues left behind by the sitter(s) are ones that are symbols for how THEY want us to remember them. Despite the “reality” of the times, these folks wanted us to remember them at their best. In their best outfits, giving their best smile or stare, captured on film. Whether it be a hat, a suit or even the way they are posed, style is how we are to be seen by the world. Style goes beyond what one is wearing. Style is a lived experience expressed outwardly. Our individuality lies in our style. And for Black Americans, style has much to do with how we position ourselves in the world. And these images capture style the best. And freeze them in time. The consistency of a picture, somehow helps shape a unified image of Black life as it was and/or is.” 

– BlackMass

Yusuf Hassan and Kwamé Sorrell, co-founders of the artist collective BlackMass, will present a visual essay based on images from their archives and the exhibition Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North

This online lecture and conversation will take us through portraits of, and by African Americans, offering cross-generational and cross-geographical perspectives on Black life, drawing from both the current exhibition and archival materials collected by BlackMass.

About the Speakers

At once a structure of coherent units and a collection of disjointed parts, BlackMass invokes an aggregate of Blackness, of matter in resistance. Combining archival photographs and found print material with poetry and jazz music, BlackMass grapples with the blurred lines and idiosyncrasies which make up the collective improvisation of African diasporic culture.

Space is limited; advance registration is required. Instructions for joining with a Zoom link and password will be provided by email upon registration confirmation under “Additional Information.” Closed captioning will be provided in English. For questions or to request accessibility accommodations, please email consider making a donation when you register to support ongoing virtual programming.


Photographers unidentified, c. 1930-1970’s, photographs. BlackMass Archive., File, BlackMass Image: sent by email. 

Major support for this exhibition is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, with additional support from, the American Folk Art Society, Citi, the David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions, David and Dixie De Luca, Susan and James Hunnewell, 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, and Elizabeth and Irwin Warren.


1:00 pm–2:15 pm

Virtual; free with registration

Register here