Breaking Ground

Constructions of Identity in African American Art 1

Authored by: Rebecca VanDiver

The Routledge Companion to African American Art History

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138486553
eBook ISBN: 9781351045193
Adobe ISBN:


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In 1773, English publisher A. Bell printed Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral. The volume’s frontispiece comprised an oval engraved portrait of the young black author at work. Scipio Moorehead, an enslaved African living in Boston, created the bust-length likeness that depicted Wheatley seated at a desk, pen in hand as if in the midst of writing. A slim text-filled band encircles the portrait and relays the following information to the reader: “Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston.” The paratext, external to Moorehead’s engraving, serves as a visual and literal framing device. By naming Wheatley as the property of another, the words control our understanding of the image. The portrait showcases Wheatley’s identity as a writer, while at the same time the text reminds us of her objecthood. The frontispiece is an example of how while much representational art functions as a commodity and a cultural object, it is also a vehicle for identity construction. Engraved in Boston, printed in London, and then read on both sides of the Atlantic, the Wheatley portrait offered an alternative public black identity at a time when African-descended bodies still circulated as property.

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