Photographs put spotlight on historical African-American objects
The objects in "Manifest" include Bibles, slave collars and even Frederick Douglass' hair
Wendel White can’t pinpoint where one of his photography projects ends and another begins.
Research for one series of photos inevitably leads him down another path.
“This is probably my greatest weakness: I don’t know when a project is over,” the artist and Stockton University professor said during a recent phone call.
White’s photographs tell stories of African-American history, people and the objects associated with them.
His latest, “Manifest,” focuses on both ordinary relics of black American life – a drum, a class ring, a spoon – and objects that illustrate the war America has waged on black bodies: shackles, a slave bill of sale, a women’s Ku Klux Klan hood.
In hunting down material to photograph, he’s discovered “the residue of history, the residue of the way in which historical objects become a way of holding time.”
White, 59, doesn’t see himself as a historian but as an artist interpreting relics through his own lens. His photos might capture only a portion of an object, leaving its historical importance to the viewer to assess.
Two of White’s previous photo projects, landscapes of small-town black life and segregated educational institutions, indirectly spawned “Manifest.”
He traveled to Rochester, New York, to research abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass and the nearby Niagara Movement, which eventually spawned the NAACP.
In perusing materials at the University of Rochester, White came across the first book Douglass purchased after escaping from slavery. The school also had a lock of Douglass’ hair in its archives.
White was fascinated by the objects and by the questions: “What’s been chosen to be collected? What’s been held onto?”
“That way in which you’re connected through the object is very powerful, and I just became very interested in those objects in that way,” he said.
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An idea was born, and White returned with a larger camera to shoot the first items that would come to comprise a book collection released in 2015.
A residency in Omaha, Nebraska, put White where African-American icon Malcolm X was born, so he began looking for objects to photograph there.
Coincidentally, a collection in nearby Lincoln also contained hair from Douglass as well as other members of his family. White found and photographed more historical objects, including boxes of files the FBI kept about Malcolm X.
White came across everyday objects in his search, but perhaps the most evocative articles he photographed relate to slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, including a Confederate flag housed at the Cape May courthouse in New Jersey and a Confederate shell in a collection at Rutgers University.
He photographed some objects that had to be rescued from a dilapidated African-American history museum. Over the phone, he echoed a sentiment from the foreword of “Manifest” – that there has not been enough institutional attention to black narratives and black lives.
“What I find fascinating – what makes it almost easy for me – is that a lot of these objects in many of the collections that I go to, while they are cared for, they’re not typically the central pieces of the collection,” he said. “These are not the pieces that these collections tend to think of as their core identity.”
White hopes the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in fall 2016, will mean the preservation of more of those objects. Some items he’s photographed have already been tapped for the collection.
His photos are now part of the collected body of knowledge about black history.
“They’re like ghost stories,” he said.