African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 - 1917

My name is Cynthia Hawkins, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Department of  Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The title of my dissertation which I will soon defend is African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 to 1917. My interests are rooted in interdisciplinarity and include 19th century American, and African American history, African American art, museum history and function, race, gender, critical theory, visual art, and culture. Currently, I am the Gallery Director and Curator at SUNY Geneseo.

I  focus my research on how the visual arts have performed as an agency bearing for African Americans during the long 19th century. Of the four cases, studies I examine how student William H. Sheppard was inspired by the curiosity room's art and artifact collection at Hampton Normal School to, as the first African American Southern Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, purchase Bakuba art and donate it to the Normal school's collection. I then asses the ways it was used by the faculty to enable agency in their black students providing a meaningful historical and contemporaneous connection to Africa. The remaining chapters focus on artist Charlotte "Lottie" Wilson  (1854-1914) and  her work as art superintendent for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick (1877 – 1968), and the Warrick Tableau (3/4 life size diorama) installation created for the Negro Building at 1907 Jamestown Ter-centennial, and still life and landscape painter Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – 1923). Each of these artists created works of art that the African American public found not only aesthetically pleasing, their works of art also encouraged others, regardless of difficulties, to pursue their own goals. 

To define agency in relation to the fine art object and its reference to capacity, intellectual acuity, and evidence of culture and status,  is a particular challenge because agency is, and has been generally of critical importance in Africa American life. Of interest too is Wilson's sense of her market. By working in a variety of genres, from painting portraits of well-known individuals who were important to African Americans to landscapes and still life painting she, "Lottie Wilson the artist"  (as the press frequently referred to her) ensured a ready audience. 

This dissertation has sparked new research interest, African American participation in the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention Institute Fairs, (1808-1983). Another is based on Charles Ethan Porter's tenure in New York City after he completed his studies at the National Academy of Design. From 1872 until 1880 Porter lived in Chelsea a New York City neighborhood which was to a great extent was multiracial. This finding has led to my interest in black life post-Civil War through to World War I, and this summer's research will culminate in a course I will teach in the fall.

- Cynthia Hawkins