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…Land where my fathers died…

June 4, 2016

This is the second half of a two-part essay. Read part one here.

On May 14, 2016, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. hosted a performance art gathering organized by Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. The event was part of a series of performance works commissioned by the Gallery to acknowledge the ways race, gender, and class have been determining factors in who has traditionally had access to the making of their portrait. In hosting this performance series, the Portrait Gallery acknowledges that there are many stories and images that are obscured within their collection – one housed at an institution tasked with collecting and displaying images that are national in scale.

After the performers stood in front of the George Washington portrait, the ensemble and audience moved to a prominent painting of President Lincoln. Along with Washington, Abraham Lincoln is one of the most legendary presidents, often remembered for dismantling the formal institution of slavery in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Although slavery ended in the 1860s, numerous practices and institutions, such as the prison, maintained the national tendency to glorify whiteness and devalue blackness. As the President who is remembered for ending slavery, Lincoln’s legacy is one of helping to move the nation forward in its ever-unfinished progress toward freedom and liberty.

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Lincoln is also an important figure in the history of American portraiture. In addition to being the subject of numerous paintings, Lincoln’s presidency occurred as the technology of photography was just beginning to emerge. Over the course of his time in office, Lincoln became one of the most visible figures in the world, rendered in paintings, photographs, and sculptures, among many other artforms. These images were key to establishing him as an iconic figure who helped the nation move closer to its founding ideals.

In the images above and below, a black woman sits in front of the Lincoln painting and is dressed in costume as the President. The performer, Dell Hamilton, wears her natural hair pulled back, sports a false beard and suit, and a tall hat sits at her feet. Her presence in front of the image is absurd, prompting the viewer to reconsider the assumed whiteness and maleness of the subjects of this and many other famous portraits. This moment of drag performance may also call to mind the numerous black people and women who fought against slavery in different ways than Lincoln – many by stealing themselves away to freedom.

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For some, the story of the United States becoming freer and more equal continues from Emancipation, through the Civil Rights Movement, and culminates in the election of the first black president. During Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign announcement in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, Obama said that Lincoln “moved a nation and helped free a people.” On the day of his inauguration as the 44th President, Obama took the oath of office with his right hand laid on Lincoln’s bible. In these moments, Obama tied his candidacy to a continuous movement toward equality that Lincoln has come to symbolize. Obama also exists within the visual legacy of President Lincoln, having emerged in another turning point in technology that was characterized by digital images and social media. As with the presidents before him, visual images of Obama have been key to envisioning him as a monumental figure in American history.





DELL M. HAMILTON is an artist, writer, activist and curator based in Boston. Born in Spanish Harlem and with ancestral roots in Belize, Honduras and the Caribbean, she spent her formative years in the Bronx borough of New York and was raised in a bilingual as well as a multi-racial family. Her studio practice spans the mediums of performance, installation, drawing, photography, and video within the domains of gender, race, language, history, contemporary art and the African Diaspora. Her work has been shown to a wide variety of audiences in the U.S., France, Italy and Chile. She is currently an artist-in-residence at SubSamsøñ.


MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS works with her husband, saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard, to reinsert the black body into historical narratives. Under the name FEFA, they use personal stories, music and procession to evoke both protest and devotion.


NIKKI GREEN is Assistant Professor of Art at Wellesley College. She is an art historian examining African and African American identities, music, the body, and feminism in 20th century and contemporary art.

About Nikki A. Greene



From the Nation Portrait Gallery:
“Wealth, class, race, and gender determined who could have a portrait made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The National Portrait Gallery is pulling back the curtain of time to acknowledge those who are missing from the museum’s historical collections. Each artist selected for the inaugural “Identify” series critiques American portraiture and institutional history by making visible a body or bodies that historically have been forgotten, marginalized, or oppressed. Bear witness with us in this experimental initiative.

“The artists selected for “Identify” draw on autobiography and archival resources to consider their personal stories through the lens of historical exclusion. Their inspiration is rooted in voices lost in the museum’s home—the National Historic Landmark building that began as the Patent Office—or in their metaphorical ancestors who are missing from the Portrait Gallery’s collections.”

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