Thursday, August 11, 2016

'Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery' At UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive presents Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery, on view July 27 through October 23, 2016. The exhibition features a large selection of photographic cartes de visite of the famed former slave, as well as other Civil War–era photographs and Federal currency, none of which have been exhibited before.

The exhibition is organized by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley and author of "Enduring Truths. Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance" (University of Chicago Press, 2015), the first book to explore how Truth used her image, the press, the postal service, and copyright laws to support her activism and herself. Many of the photographs included in the exhibition were a recent gift from Professor Grigsby to BAMPFA.

Runaway slave Sojourner Truth gained renown in the nineteenth century as an abolitionist, feminist, and orator. This exhibition showcases the photographic carte de visite portraits of Truth that she sold at lectures and by mail as a way of making a living. First invented by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854, cartes de visite are similar in size to the calling cards that preceded them, approximately two-and one-half by four inches, and consist of albumen photographs made from glass negatives glued onto cardboard mounts. By the end of the 1850s, the craze for the relatively inexpensive cartes de visite had reached the United States. Americans who could never have afforded a portrait could now have their likeness memorialized. Combined with the emergence of the new US postal system, these cards appealed to a vast nation of dispersed peoples.

Truth could not read or write, but she had her statements repeatedly published in the press, enthusiastically embraced new technologies such as photography, and went to court three times to claim her legal rights. Uniquely among portrait sitters, she had her photographic cartes de visite copyrighted in her own name and added the caption “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. Sojourner Truth,” foregrounding her self-selected proper name, her agency, and her possession of self.

This exhibition places Truth’s cartes de visite in context by reconstructing the flood of paper—federal banknotes, photographs, letters, autographs, stamps, prints, and newspapers—that created political communities across the immense distances of the nation during the Civil War. Like the federal government that resorted to the printing of paper currency to finance the war against slavery, Truth was improvising new ways of turning paper into value in order to finance her activism as an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights.

Image: Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth with a photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell, on her lap, 1863 (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby)

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