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New Narratives

Contemporary works on paper emphasize storytelling
Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings
November 27, 2023
General Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1986. Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), Lou Stovall Workshop, Inc., Amistad Research Center. 2019.79.6

This winter, compelling stories rivaling the latest Netflix drama are on display in the museum’s James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery. New Narratives: Contemporary Works on Paper presents a range of works that emphasize storytelling, whether imaginary, historical, personal, cultural, or mythic. Compiled entirely from the museum’s collection, the majority of prints and drawings in the exhibition are recent acquisitions on view for the first time. 

The impetus for the exhibition was an important acquisition in 2019: the 15-part silkscreen series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, by American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), a gift of Agnes Gund in honor of Gordon Gund. Lawrence created the print series in 1986, but his interest in the Haitian Revolution, and its leader François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, began in the 1930s. The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was the uprising on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) by enslaved and freed people against French colonial rule. Lawrence first portrayed the revolution in 1937–38, when he made 41 paintings on the subject, and in the late 1980s he reprised 15 of those compositions as screenprints, all of which are on view in the exhibition.

Lawrence’s early interest in Haiti was the result of intersecting geopolitical and cultural forces in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the US had invaded and occupied Haiti in 1915, claiming the need to restore order after the assassination of the Haitian president. The US remained in Haiti until 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt withdrew. The Haitian occupation outraged Black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and the island’s revolutionary history became a focus of Black cultural-political consciousness during the Harlem Renaissance, when it was reimagined by authors, playwrights, and artists. Lawrence may have been familiar with the play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History by Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James, who also published a history of the revolution in 1938. Another play covering similar ground, Emperor of Haiti by Langston Hughes, was produced at Karamu House in Cleveland in 1936. It was in this cultural zeitgeist that the young Lawrence undertook his 41-panel series, which initiated his life’s work addressing overlooked historical subjects. Within the next 10 years, he produced successive painting series on Frederick Douglass (1939), Harriet Tubman (1940), and the Great Migration (1941). 

The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture: To Preserve Their Freedom, 1988. Jacob Lawrence. Silkscreen on paper; sheet: 55.9 x 81.6 cm. Gift of Agnes Gund in honor of Gordon Gund, 2019.79.15. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When creating the screenprint series based on his Haitian Revolution paintings, Lawrence chose key moments from the life of General L’Ouverture (1743–1803), or Louverture. Born enslaved, L’Ouverture rose to become commander in chief of the revolutionary army, leading Saint-Domingue toward eventual independence from French rule. The prints focus on episodes from L’Ouverture’s life and turning points in the revolt, such as planning phases, insurrections, major battles, the arrival of Napoleon’s troops, and the capture of L’Ouverture, who died imprisoned in Paris before the conflict’s conclusion. In 1804, the year after L’Ouverture’s death, his collaborator Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806) finally declared Haiti’s independence. 

In the 1930s, Lawrence’s painted series held allegorical implications for the stirring Civil Rights Movement; his reprisal of the subject in the 1980s coincided with that decade’s backlash against the movement. For the screenprints, Lawrence slightly enlarged the compositions, altering colors and details throughout. He avoided a strict representational style, utilizing bright colors and large, simplified forms: this he called “dynamic cubism,” which he saw as a Black modernist variant of history painting.

Lawrence’s powerful series is one of the many compelling tales on view in the exhibition made by a diverse group of artists, including John Baldessari, Enrique Chagoya, Yun-Fei Ji, Kerry James Marshall, Renée Stout, Kara Walker, Marie Watt, and David Wojnarowicz. Some, like Lawrence, explore history by revisiting the past with fresh eyes, or by presenting stories overlooked or forgotten. Others examine narrative through biographies of known or often unknown individuals, asserting personal intersections with history, people, or events. 

Empire Follows Art: States of Agitation 11, 2020. Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani American, b. 1969). Color digital printing, watercolor and gouache on prepared wove paper; sheet: 40.6 x 30.5 cm. Norman O. Stone and Ella A. Stone Memorial Fund, 2021.103. © Shahzia Sikander

Still others imagine stories across time and geography, disrupting expected narratives to explore subjective experiences. In Empire Follows Art: States of Agitation 11, Shahzia Sikander combines the artistic traditions of her native Pakistan, where she studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, with techniques learned during her graduate artistic training in the United States. Small in size, like a manuscript, Empire Follows Art features an expressively painted image of Hindu deity Vishvarupa, with his multiple heads visible at the top of the sheet. Sikander masterfully pooled the wet watercolor medium over a collaged digital image of a finely rendered manuscript featuring a regal figure, an elephant, a leopard, and other animals. The blood-red paint both masks and reveals the creatures below and suggests the turmoil of an epic mythical battle across time and place. By layering such disparate styles in her work, Sikander suggests the struggle, as an artist and an immigrant, of reconciling two distinct cultures. 

The exhibition labels in New Narratives feature contributions by community members who bring personal reflections to several of the acquisitions on view. Continuing acquisitions of contemporary works on paper, as presented in the exhibition, create opportunities to share new voices in the context of the museum’s chronologically and globally expansive collections.