I was excited by learning more about each artist and their work, and I thought I would take the opportunity to investigate an area of interest they mentioned.
Through our interview I became drawn in to thinking about how Mathew’s work draws us to question conceptual jokes through the historic figurines he paints, such as the black boy with a pot of black shoe polish [Jar, 2011] and his choice of a figurine wearing a bow around her neck for the Bow Porcelain project [see post ‘Studio visit with Mathew Weir]. This, along with his practice of laboriously transcribing from a photograph of an object to a painting, dissecting the image and drawing us in to every detail forces us to scrutinise uncomfortable subject matter. He is entirely right to pose questions about the meaning of these objects at the time of their production, and to us today.
I decided to do some of my own research into Black Americana ceramics which he referred to during our interview as previously I was unaware of their existence.
Firstly I did a google search of ‘Black Americana ceramics’ looking for some information or historical context, only to find the only place I could find any references was ebay.
I was particularly struck by this item:
It is titled VINTAGE, BLACK AMERICANA, CERAMIC SMOKING NOVELTY; “BLACK BOY ON THE POT”, JAPAN and is available to BUY NOW for $35.00.
This reminded me of one of Mathew’s own paintings which I had been looking at Early Bird, 2008
as both these items are not only complicated in their nature- as Mathew says they are made by white people for a white audience- but derogatory as they overtly deride their subject.
I found it interesting to note that these items are readily available through the internet today, but contextual information is not.
Frustrated with the lack of information available through British internet services I found out how to crack into the US google site and found an interesting site which discussed the action of collecting Black Americana in the following way:
- Most collectible black memorabilia was produced from the 1920s through the 1950s, although some collectors seek items dating back to the Civil War era as well. These items come from a time in American history when it was acceptable to have black stereotypes not only in the home, but everywhere. People ate at Coon Chicken Inn restaurants, bought Gold Dust Twins laundry powder in at the local market, and outfitted their kitchens with Aunt Jemima, Uncle Mose and other caricatures.
- Documents and artifacts relating to slavery are important and some people believe should not be sold for any reason. Some people believe ignoring this history is disrespectful to those who lived through it.
- The writer of this page quotes being asked by a colleague where she could purchase some of these stereotypical items for her home. When questioned why she would want derogatory items in her home her colleague explained she wanted to own all types of black Americana because those items were a reflection of her cultural heritage, and reflected an important aspect of her lineage when incorporated into her home’s decor.
- The writer proposed that Black Americana can also been seen as celebratory for instance, letters, programs from speaking engagements, and items that were owned by either Dr. King or members of his family are all considered historically important, and also collectible.
The writer Pamela Wiggins [who is white] finishes the article by saying ‘Just as we can’t make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin, we must not make assumptions about what motivates people to collect either. If we’ve learned anything through the decades about tolerance and understanding, perhaps this example points to those ideals.’
I found it reassuring that there is some discussion about this in America. However this article gives some context as to why people collect Black Americana today but without being very conclusive, or decisive.
I returned closer to home and found black figurines which pre- date Black Americana produced in the Bow Porcelain factory. I had first seen these in the collection at the V&A and the image below of a very similar item is from at an antique dealers EARLE D. VANDEKAR.
The V&A information states that the earliest porcelain figures were made for the dessert course of grand dinners and replaced the sugar paste and wax figures made since medieval times for royal feasts.
These were originally intended as expressions of power and to celebrate political allegiances, but by the 18th century many were entirely decorative.
In the 1760s at the Bow factory these porcelain figures began to be made with a leafy bower or ‘bocage’ and were used less on the table and more often on the mantelpiece above the fire.
This figure, on the V&A website was produced at Bow around 1760, depicts a young black woman wearing a form of European peasant dress and holding a basket of fruit.
Black Africans offered exotic associations and were a marker of luxury within the English home. In the 18th century about 10,000 Africans are estimated to have been living in England. Many worked as (often unpaid) domestic staff.
So for 250 years these ceramics have been used as signifiers of wealth, luxury and priviledge. Since the 1750s they have represented ownership over ‘exotic’ people in terms of slavery, and power over people in the context of the racist American society of the 1920s to 1950s. The sense I get through these issues being raised in Mathew’s work is that we do not know whether these objects are acceptable, or whether we want a place for reminders of this uncomfortable cultural history in our society today.