Powerful Dialogue

A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo-A Fact Which Occurred in America, 1809 confronts visitors as they enter the Menil Collection. English artist George Dawe painted it in 1810, and it's part of the exhibition "Deep Wells and Reflecting Pools," curated by artist David McGee as part of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's show "Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970."

McGee combed through the Menil's vast holdings, seeking to create a dialogue among selected works. He chose ancient to modern art and objects related to people of African descent -- everything from a fifth-century BC Greek vessel to a certificate from a slave auction to a lithograph of Angela Davis. His choices and arrangement of the works become a pointed study in contrasts. Some works "ennoble" their subjects -- which can be patronizing and paternalistic -- and others basely objectify and exploit them. McGee sought to "take the art out" of the exhibition, focusing on cultural and historical import rather than aesthetics. But as a painter, he's still susceptible to painting's charms.

Dawe's painting is beautifully and masterfully executed, moving from the gestural strokes of the earth to the burnished precision of its subjects. Dawe depicts a black man wrestling a buffalo -- supposedly a true story. With one hand on the animal's horn and the other grasping its nostrils, the man has forced the buffalo's head to the ground. One of the animal's reddish eyes stares up in terror. The darkness of its fur intermingles with the darkness of the man's naked flesh.

It's a gorgeously rendered work depicting an impressive act of powerful physicality. But Dawe gives us the face of the buffalo, not the face of the man. The animal is more of an individual than he is. Faceless, Dawe's "Negro" has no name. Dawe might as well have painted Lion Overpowering a Buffalo, such is his focus on the musculature, strength and physicality of his subject -- not the humanity.

Dawe, who had a lucrative stint in Russia as a painter to Czar Alexander I, drew another black man, Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin, the Russian cultural equivalent of Shakespeare, was the great-grandson of an African general, Ibrahim Hannibal. He wrote a poem about the sitting titled "To Dawe Esq.*" The first two lines read, "Why does your wondrous pencil strive My Moorish profile to elicit?" From an aristocratic Russian family, Pushkin was intensely proud of his African heritage. His poem calls attention to the Western fascination with the other.

Pushkin also wrote about that fascination in his unfinished work The Negro of Peter the Great, based on his own great-grandfather's story. Ibrahim Hannibal was sold into slavery in the early 1700s but went on to become an engineer, a major general in the Russian army and a favorite of czar Peter the Great. "The Countess received Ibrahim politely," wrote Pushkin, "but without any particular attention; he felt flattered by this. People generally regarded the young Moor as a freak, and, surrounding him, overwhelmed him with compliments and questions; this curiosity, although concealed beneath an air of graciousness, offended his vanity...He even envied those who remained unnoticed and considered them to be fortunate in their insignificance."

One of the paintings McGee selected, The Stranger (ca. 1840-1850), by a French artist named J. Duprey, depicts a free, culturally assimilated black man in 19th-century Europe. Imbued with a photojournalistic feeling, the work shows an elegantly dressed black man smoking a cigar in a train car. He gazes out the window, casually resting his arm on the sill, his legs crossed. A gawking man and boy are seated next to him, and two children peer over the seat behind him. He is aware of their stares but calmly ignores them with the dignity of someone all too used to the attention. Duprey was no great artist, and the figures are awkwardly rendered, but the black passenger is depicted with a poise and an elegance that make the other figures seem all the more boorish. (Of course, 100 years later in America, that man would not even have been allowed in the same train car with the white gawkers.)

And being gawked at on a train was a luxury compared to the fate of so many black people in America and Europe. Other works in the show remind us of the cruelty and exploitation suffered by the majority. There's a portrait of Sara Baartman, the Khoisan woman who was taken from South Africa in 1810 and displayed in cages in Europe. Baartman was dubbed the Hottentot Venus because of the size of her derriere, and she became the embodiment of European stereotypes about African femininity and sexuality. Two 1824 lithographs called Femme de race Bchismanne are also of Baartman, drawn in that weird, objectifying, 19th-century, pseudo-scientific style usually used to render freakish farm animals and other specimens of study. Baartman died in Paris in 1816. After her death, her brain and genitalia were removed and placed in jars of formaldehyde and displayed in the Muse de l'Homme in Paris -- until 1985. After eight years of pressure from the South African government, her remains finally were returned home for burial in 2000. McGee has pointedly placed the Baartman lithographs on either side of David Mossey's loving portrait of Angela Davis.

There's also a bust of famed 20th-century Renaissance man Paul Robeson, which McGee placed opposite a carved wooden head of Nat Turner, with bulging glass eyes and rope marks around his neck. Nearby, a formal, stuffy 18th-century portrait hangs on the same wall with a receipt from a slave auction for a man, woman and sorrel horse ($700, $333 and $40, respectively.) McGee uses these cultural and artistic artifacts to create a complex, disturbing and provocative exploration of race.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer