JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 framed color photographs—seven by Lyle Ashton Harris and seven by Deborah Willis—hung on the white walls of Casa Italiana’s first-floor reception area and an adjoining hallway. Six of the photographs by Harris are dated 2015, and one is dated 1998. All of the Willis photographs are from 2014. Harris’s photographs are Fujiflex prints mounted on aluminum and range in size from 31 x 21¾ inches (or the reverse) to 48 x 38 inches. Willis’s photographs are color prints on photo rag paper and measure 22 x 32 inches (or the reverse). Edition numbers were not provided. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In one of the Renaissance revival rooms of Villa La Pietra in Tuscany stands a polychrome statue of a handsome black youth. Dressed in a short brocade robe embellished with gold collar, hem, and sash, he holds his hands out, palms up, in front of him. The statue is one of about 35 blackamoors—exoticized representations of nonwhite men and women—that NYU inherited, along with a priceless collection of art and books, when British scholar Harold Acton bequeathed the 15th-century villa to the university. It appears twice in this show, which features the work of two contemporary African-American photographers, Deborah Willis and Lyle Ashton Harris.
Ubiquitous in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, blackamoors are statues or other decorative objects depicting richly dressed black Africans, usually in the role of a servant or a slave holding a tray, a torch, or a plate of fruit. Popular with the bourgeoisie, they are believed have been stand-ins—for those not able to afford the real thing—for the African men, women, and children used as pages or servants in Venetian palaces. Italian craftsmen still produce blackamoors today, and antique blackamoor jewelry continues to be highly collectible, even if wearing it is now considered in poor taste. (Witness the public’s shocked response last December to Princess Michael of Kent’s blackamoor brooch, worn to the Queen’s annual Christmas lunch.)
On view at Casa Italiana, the home of New York University’s Department of Italian Studies, this exhibition is excerpted from the show “Resignifications,” presented at three venues in Florence in 2015. For“Resignifications,” curator Awam Amkpa asked a group of international contemporary artists to respond to the La Pietra’s 17th and 18th-century blackamoors. Both Willis and Harris’s photographs, produced for that exhibition, confront and disrupt the layered meanings of these beautiful but troubling works of art.
Harris’s photograph of the red-robed servant joins several others that Harris staged in La Pietra’s rooms with live male models. One picture shows four nude or shirtless young black men in a room crammed with gilded baroque furniture, mirrors, and objets d’art—including a tabletop statue of a bare-breasted, ebony-skinned woman holding a golden basket on her head. In another picture, a naked man leans negligently against a wall; echoing his pose is a bust of a turbaned African wearing a double strand of huge golden beads.
In his multimedia installations—including his thrilling contribution to last year’s Whitney biennial—Harris has presented his personal history as a black, homosexual man in relation to the global social history of his time. Populating La Pietra’s rooms with living models, he counters the desires—for power, wealth, and social status—represented by the blackamoors with a larger and more complex imaginary, even as he connects Europe’s long history of colonization to the present moment in Italy, where only days after the show opened, an Italian man opened fire on African migrants in the city of Macerata, wounding six.
Willis, who is also known for her writing on photography, has long been concerned with notions of beauty. Her photographs of La Pietra, including one of the red-robed servant figure, accompany pictures of antique stores in which blackamoors—including a coal-black acrobat, his chest and palms resting on a pillow his chin in the air, and his legs straight up over his head, that may once have supported a table—appear amid jumbles of chairs, beds, mirrors, paintings, lamps, and other furnishings. Regardless of their undeniable appeal, she suggests, blackamoors nevertheless represent the black body as accessory. Focusing on the blackamoors’ improbable positions, she conjures the real-life suffering of the living men and women on which they are based.
Each of the two artists has contributed a somewhat anomalous photograph to the exhibition: Willis, a picture of a classical statue of a goddess looking into a mirror; Harris, a portrait of an African American woman wearing exaggerated gold eyeliner. As images of self-fashioning, they underscore the constructed nature of race, sexuality, and beauty, as well as the devastating effects when the constructions of others are imposed or internalized.
Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Lyle Ashton Harris is represented by Salon 94 in New York (here), David Castillo Gallery in Miami (here), and Maruani & Mercier Gallery in Brussels (here); the gallery representation relationships for Deborah Willis are less clear. Neither photographer’s work has had much in the way of consistent secondary-market activity in recent years, so gallery retail (or direct connection via their websites) remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.