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07 Dec 2023

Virtual Insights: Reasserting Black Presence in the Early American North

Through over 120 remarkable works including paintings, needlework, and works on paper from the late seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, the exhibition Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North shares the untold stories of Black experience in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. 

In this program, exhibition curators Emelie Gevalt, RL Watson and Sadé Ayorinde walk us through the exhibition, reconsidering a selection of early American objects and archives with Black visibility in mind. 

Inviting new considerations of old images, positioning the Black figure as the principal subject of inquiry, this curatorial walkthrough will offer a new window onto representation in a region that is often overlooked in narratives of early American history. Speakers will trouble traditional narratives, challenge faulty popular memory and reassert Black presence in unexpected places. 

Space is limited; advance registration is required. Please consider making a donation when you register to support ongoing virtual programming.

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

About the speakers:

Emelie Gevalt is Curatorial Chair for Collections and Curator of Folk Art at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Often looking at earlier material through the lens of twentieth-century histories of collecting and collective memory, her work encompasses research interests in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American decorative painting, portraiture, textiles, African American material culture and representation, and the Colonial Revival movement. Gevalt received her BA in art history and theater studies from Yale University and her MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. She has previously held positions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and at Christie’s, New York, where she was a Vice President in the Estates, Appraisals & Valuations department.

Gevalt is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware in the art history department, where her work has been supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Track PhD Fellowship. Her dissertation is entitled “Unseen New England: Black Presence & Absence in Early American Art and Material Culture.” Looking through the lens of race and the construction of social hierarchy, her project investigates the conflicting forces of predominantly white New England memory-making and the collective forgetting of Black histories, through a trans-temporal study of some of the region’s earliest images.

Dr. RL Watson, proud native of New Jersey, is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at Lake Forest College. They are an alumna of Yale University (BA 2003), Yale Divinity School (MAR 2010, summa cum laude), and The University of Chicago (PhD 2018). Watson teaches courses in African American literature (18th-21st century), college writing, and creative writing. Watson’s research treats racialized and racializing representations of Black Americans in American culture in an investigation of the social and philosophical import of (racialized) color in American identity formation. They are now honing a book manuscript based on this research, tentatively titled Dark Masks: The Representational Lives of Black Americans. This project has as its focus the doubled problem of darkness: i.e., the darkness of sin and the darkness of the skin. They have also recently completed the first manuscript for their novel entitled Anatomy of a Judas, which asks the question, If the devil is black, as he has so often been depicted, what would he have to say about the moral system to which he finds himself so malignantly attached? Watson currently lives in Waukegan with their plants, their thin pens, and their dog Grover “Sugar Foot” Watson, dear Levi’s furry little brother.

Sadé Ayorinde is a Terra Foundation Predoctoral Fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and recently served as Warren Family Assistant Curator at the American Folk Art Museum. She is also a PhD candidate in the department of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University. Viewing art as a form of visual communication that questions, manipulates, and/or distorts racial, social, and gender relationships, her research focuses on constructions of identity via modern and contemporary American art, mass media, and visual culture.

Sadé earned a B.S. BA (bachelors of science in business administration) in International Business and an M.A. in Art History from University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL). She has held various curatorial and educational roles including a position at the Sheldon Museum of Art, and collaborations with Cornell’s Kroch Rare Manuscript Division, the Johnson Museum of Art, and the International Quilt Museum.

Images: Left: William Matthew Prior, Nancy Lawson, Boston, Massachusetts, 1843, Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 in. Middle: William Matthew Prior, William Lawson, Boston, Massachusetts, 1843, Oil on canvas, 30 1⁄4 x 25 1⁄4 in. Right: Rufus Hathaway, A View of Mr. Joshua Winsor’s House, Duxbury, Massachusetts. c. 1793-1795, Oil on canvas, 28 x 32 3/16 x 2 in.

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, 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, the Dorothea & Leo Rabkin Foundation, Gail Wright Sirmans, Donna L. Skerrett, Ramondy Thermidor, and Elizabeth and Irwin Warren.

1:00 pm–2:15 pm