- Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture
In his most recent book, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, Richard Powell calls for an empathetic read of the portrait, one that acknowledges the subjectivity of both the viewer and the represented. Powell positions the practice of portraiture as a performative act, one that is socially engaged and that makes evident, as Kristine Stiles puts it, "'the all-too-forgotten interdependence of human subjects-of people-one to another'" (16). The intersubjective relations that are inherent to the practice of portraiture have been explored recently by scholars such as Amelia Jones and Catherine M. Soussloff, yet Powell's critical analysis of how the determinants of race affect the understanding of subjectivity distinguish his study. Following the contingencies of a Barthes-inspired reading, Powell's interests shift from the relationship established between the subject and viewer, to that of the subject and the author of the image, as well as the historical context in which the image is viewed, an approach that makes an empathetic and conscious reading of the images possible.
Looking to his own family archive, the author models this approach by contextualizing a photograph of his father and uncle from 1930 within the experience of the Great Migration. Powell notes the sharp suits of the youthful figures and how their posture and gaze express the kind of confidence associated with the proverbial phrase "cutting a figure." Yet, the author imbues the phrase with further meaning by acknowledging that this very personal image is part of a larger dialogue on black representation, one that challenges a monolithic perspective and insists on acknowledging the multivalent selfhood that historically, black subjects have been denied. Hence, the title of the book is indicative of the author's strategy to dismantle a predominately white paradigm of modern portraiture, cutting to black portraits that "extend the parameters of an aestheticized and modern humankind" (14). Though Hugh Honour's ground-breaking survey of the black image in western art may have inspired many scholars, few turned their attention to black portraiture. Deborah Willis and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw are among the few who have continued to insert the black image into the survey of everyday portraiture, making Powell's most recent contribution all the more significant.
For his purposes, Powell broadly defines what constitutes a portrait, investigating representations of persons regardless of medium, whether commissioned [End Page 370] or not, and considering images that for the most part were not retained by the subject. As such, Powell's query into the social capital of black representation is interdisciplinary and deeply indebted to theories of spectatorship and the phenomenology of the lived black experience. The author's approach is by no means essentialist; his multivalent readings privilege the very contingencies upon which modern selfhood is constructed. Powell's main objective is to cut into the historic denial of black subjectivity and illuminate the ways that these black figures socially and historically constructed selves that could only be understood-and could understand themselves-in relation to others.
Organized into four interrelated chapters, Cutting a Figure opens with a historical survey, followed by two in-depth biographical case studies that are preceeded by a discussion of contemporary examples of portraiture. Chapter one begins by examining what Powell calls "interlocutors," images of individuals that were part of a larger discourse of "bodily and spiritual emancipation" (25). From the honorific portrait of Cinqué painted by Nathaniel Jocelyn to the lithographic rendering of Frederick Douglass for minstrel era sheet music, Powell considers the diverse body of nineteenth-century images that shaped and challenged notions of racial blackness. The case studies on black actress/ fashion model Donyale Luna (1946-1979) and African American painter Barclay L. Hendricks (b. 1945) are of particular note as substantive contributions to the field of biography, and are approached from a theoretically informed perspective. Powell sees Luna and Hendricks as "cultural benchmarks," and seeks to rectify the dearth of critical scholarship on these two individuals, who because of racial prejudice, had to "cut" their...