Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 27
 
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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Stunning Photographic Portraits Comprise “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” at Morven

Dilshanie Perera

Ranging from an archival print of Sojourner Truth, to a portrait of Romare Bearden with his artwork in the background, the photographs of “Let Your Motto Be Resistance,” the newest exhibition at Morven, tell a compelling history of African American resistance over 150 years.

Curator of Exhibitions Anne Gossen, who is also the academic and artistic director at Morven, explained that they jumped at the opportunity to host the show, calling it a “tremendous exhibit,” in which “every single portrait is deeply moving.” She took patrons on a tour during the opening reception last Wednesday.

The exhibit was organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Portrait Gallery, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

The title of the show comes from an 1843 speech by abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, during which he declared, “Let your motto be resistance! Resistance! Resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance.”

Mr. Garnet’s portrait, taken by James U. Stead around 1881, is displayed at the entrance to the exhibit. Of the two other prominently positioned photographs nearby, Ms. Gossen said, “These are two individuals who are close to our hearts.” She was referring to Paul Robeson and Toni Morrison.

Comprised of 69 photographs, the collection, which occupies four rooms in Morven, is organized along four themes highlighting the contributions of activists; artists, educators, and writers; those who used their privileged status to fight oppression; and musicians and athletes.

While rich biographical details about the subjects of the photographs accompany each picture, the portraits are what engage the viewer, offering a glimpse into the lives of the major historical figures who are featured.

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael are seen in the throes of laughter in a picture taken by former New York Times photographer George Tames. Jackie Robinson is shown clad in a suit and framed by bookshelves, while talking on the telephone and casually tossing a baseball into the air.

“You can almost hear her singing,” Ms. Gossen said in reference to Josef Breitenbach’s portrait of singer Sarah Vaughan, calling the image “timeless, elegant, and haunting.”

Another show-stopping photograph features opera icon Jessye Norman in a close-up shot snapped by Irving Penn where she is singing with one hand raised, eyes closed, and brow just slightly furrowed. “This is photography at its greatest,” Ms. Gossen declared.

“Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” will be on view at Morven until September 27. Part of a national tour, this is the show’s only stop in the immediate region, though it will be the inaugural exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is due to open in Washington, D.C. in 2015.

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