Identity & Representation:
Contemporary interventions in our galleries, such as Kehinde Wiley’s Saint John the Baptist II (2006) on the far back wall, along with several other works, are creating new connections among historical works in the Nasher Museum’s collection.
As preparation for observing and analyzing portraits, we’ll first use Google’s Art Selfie tool to consider the connection between portraiture and identity while reflecting on how a computer algorithm interprets our image. A feature of the Google Arts & Culture app that uses computer vision technology based on machine learning, Art Selfie pairs users’ selfies with faces excerpted from artwork supplied by museums partnered with Google. Interestingly, Art Selfie also includes a percentage estimate of the visual similarity of each match.
We’ll then explore five portraits that have been displayed at the Nasher Museum to understand the different components that go into making a portrait. From there, we will how to discern between conventional and unconventional approaches to portraiture.
Finally, we’ll examine the links between representation and identity by authoring a portrait of our own. The objective, here, is to take into consideration how we, or someone in our lives, wish to have ourselves presented to the outside world.
By the end of the “Identity and Representation” lesson, students will have completed the following assignments that can serve as points of departure for class discussions on identity and representation in portraiture.
- Google Art Selfie image of their highest matched portrait
- Self-portrait, portrait of a friend, family member, or pet
- Completed Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet
The focus of this lesson is to consider the relationship between identity and portraiture. Portraiture, the practice of making portraits, is a type of representation that aims to create the essence or personality of the sitter in visual terms. The subject’s identity is a key component of portraiture. Portraits capture one’s behavior, personality, and public identity by depicting, for example, a sitter’s psychological intensity (to represent an intellectual mind) or material wealth (to represent social status), among other characteristics. Above all, despite their realistic appearance, portraits often present an idealized version of the individual depicted.
The genre, or artistic category, of portrait painting holds a significant place within western art history. Alongside painting, the tradition of portraiture has been practiced for centuries, and is overwhelmingly dominated by images of those occupying societal positions of control: royalty, aristocracy, the church, and the wealthy. Portraiture may therefore function as an exercise of power by the dominant class due to portraits providing a potent tool for justifying, as well as promoting, one’s authority and strength.
In this lesson, we’ll explore two portraits by two Black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Ebony Patterson, closely. One of the objectives of this lesson is to challenge the implicit lessons of traditional western portraiture by comparing past and present examples.
For example, think about the portraits that we see every day: the likenesses of presidents and statesmen on U.S. currency; the visages of historic personages displayed in our schools; perhaps, even the Wikipedia page on portrait painting.
Notice how these purportedly public spaces (i.e., the monetary system, educational institutions, and the internet) overwhelmingly represent a dominant culture of only white subjects painted by only white artists. Moreover, the representation of non-white portrait-sitters is marred by a visual tradition of negative or racist depictions that caricatured facial features, mannerisms and social status that functioned to maintain a social hierarchy based on white supremacy.
Dignified and individualized portraits of non-white sitters that counter racist portrayals do exist and were produced throughout the history of western portraiture. However, as the scholarship of art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw demonstrates, many of these portraits have been destroyed or discarded over the centuries, indicating a lack of value placed on the preservation of the material culture of non-white peoples. As a result, the examples and evidence of western portraiture collected and preserved in museums – an institution that functions as society’s collective archive – may be viewed as a distorted and biased representation of the genre.
BEFORE YOU EXPLORE
GOOGLE’S ART SELFIE
Start by downloading the “Google Arts & Culture” app on your phone or tablet (available on Google Play or Apple’s App Store). Once it’s downloaded, open the app, scroll down the home screen and find “Art Selfie”.
Take a selfie of yourself, a friend, or a family member on the app and check out the results! Browse through the results and see how Google interprets the image. For the three highest percentage matches, click on the image, then “View Artwork” to find more details of the portraits. Write the “bare-bones” information for the works on your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet, including the titles, artists’ names, dates, countries of origin, and the portraits’ current location and museum. Click the share icon at the top right of your highest match to save the image.
Next, respond to the following reflection questions in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
- How does Google interpret your image? What perceived similarities and differences are there between yourself and the portrait’s subject
- Do you feel that Google’s digital tool accurately understands your identity? What’s missing (if anything)?
- What environment is the subject portrayed in? Does this accurately reflect an environment where you’d want to be depicted?
Changing Zoom Profile Photo
(Optional for Online Courses)
In preparation for class discussion, and if you’re comfortable with sharing, take a screenshot of one of your three matches alongside your selfie and upload to Zoom as your profile picture. To change your profile picture, in Zoom, go to preferences, then click the “Profile” tab on the left side. Click your profile picture to edit it, and then select “Change Picture” to upload your new portrait. During your class discussion, turn off your live video to show your portrait.
PORTRAITS & REPRESENTATION
After you’ve reflected on your matched portraits, read the following online Digg article by Benjamin Goggin, “Is Google’s Arts and Culture App Racist?” The short article (~700 words) discusses the representation of individuals of Asian descent in the Art Selfie app.
Next, respond to the following reflection questions in your Nasher Musuem Exploration Worksheet. Feel free to add additional responses to the article not addressed by the questions presented.
- From the reading, what issues does the author point to with regards to how Google’s Art Selfie tool approaches the representation individuals who are not white?
- How can Google’s Art Selfie tool be improved?
: IN THE GALLERIES
TRADITIONAL WESTERN PORTRAITURE
IN THE NASHER MUEUM’S COLLECTION
Please look at several examples, in the gallery below, of traditional western portraits that are in the Nasher Museum’s collection.
LOOK (~ 6 mins)
Spend two minutes observing each of the portraits above. Set a timer and challenge yourself to find small details within each one.
ANALYZE (~ 6 mins)
Use the following guidelines to analyze the three portraits, recording your findings in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet. If you need additional guidance, visit the Getty Museum’s “Understanding Formal Analysis” website for information on how artist’s use line, color, and form to convey meaning within an artwork.
Guidelines for analyzing:
- How would you describe each portrait to a friend? This will be your visual analysis.
- What are the formal qualities of each?
- How is the sitter portrayed? Standing up, sitting down, full-length, half-length, bust (head and shoulders)?
- Are there any physical attributes or items painted with the sitter? How does this contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the individual? How do the depictions of gender differ?
READ THE LABELS (~ 3 min)
Make a note of any information provided within the labels for each portrait: the date, artist, medium, dimensions, provenance (the history of the sale of the artwork over time), credit label (how the piece entered the museum’s collection. Was it a donation or a purchase?) What conclusions (if any) can be made from this information?
IN THE NASHER MUSEUM’S COLLECTION
Now let’s consider two examples of portraits by contemporary artists and how each work challenges the conventions of traditional western portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley’s Saint John the Baptist II
Wiley’s monumental painting has been displayed in the same gallery (Gallery of European Art 1400-1900) alongside the traditional western portraits painted by Danloux, Mor and van Slingeland. Unlike its companions, however, Wiley’s painting was painted well after 1900 and the artist is American, not European.
LOOK (~ 2 mins)
Spend two minutes observing this portrait and its details.
ANALYZE (~ 5 mins)
As with the previous portraits, conduct a visual analysis of Saint John the Baptist II. Next, compare Wiley’s Saint John the Baptist to the previous examples, making note of any similarities and differences. Record your observations in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
WATCH & LISTEN (~ 5 mins)
Watch a YouTube video of artist Kehinde Wiley discussing his process and body of work made for his 2015 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York:
Did your interpretation of Saint John the Baptist II change after listening to the artist describe his approach to artmaking in his own words? If so, note how your interpretation changed in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet. If not, why not?
Ebony Patterson’s Portrait Untitled Species VIII (Ruff)
Let’s continue our exploration of portraiture by examining another portrait by contemporary artist Ebony Patterson that was on view at the Nasher Museum in 2019–2020 in the traveling exhibition Ebony G. Patterson… while the dew is still on the roses….
WATCH (~ 3 mins)
Watch the short video “In the Artist’s Own Words” of Patterson explaining her vision for the exhibition.
LOOK & ANALYZE (~ 7 mins)
Now, look at Patterson’s Untitled Species VIII (Ruff) for two minutes. Record your observations in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
Next, read the wall label text included in the exhibition.
Untitled Species VIII (Ruff), 2012 Mixed media on paper
Collection of H. Tony and Marti Oppenheimer
This drawing is part of a series in which the artist explores the phenomenon of skin bleaching. Patterson has observed how this practice emerged with men within dancehall culture in Jamaica and explores skin lightening as a political gesture. The series addresses racial histories in which lighter pigmentation is associated with greater access to privilege within class hierarchies. It also relates to the use of strong beams of light from video cameras to record and promote individuals at dancehall events—the light catches to a greater degree these bleached faces. The drawing depicts one individual of this “species” of young men whose skin alterations, combined with elaborately patterned and adorned clothing, represent a new way of adapting to his urban context.
How does having this text inform your understanding of Patterson’s portrait? Does it? Why or why not? Record your observations in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
Let’s turn away from the portrait to those viewing the portrait, more specifically its audience. Do you believe that the artist’s original or intended audience for each of the portraits discussed thus far is the same? Why or why not?
While we’ve concentrated on portraits in the form of painting and drawing, portraits can exist in any artistic medium. Think about the different forms that portraits take outside the museum—as monumental park statues, blown-up headshots on billboard, or screen-sized Instagram posts. Who is the audience for these representations? Record your thoughts in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
AFTER YOU EXPLORE
EXPLORING THE NASHER MUSEUM’S PORTRAITS
Browse the Nasher Collection to discover more portrait examples on your own. Try searching for the word “portraiture” or the name of a specific artist. You can also explore a specific collection area by clicking on a single category (i.e., Recent Acquisitions, Art of the Americas, Modern & Contemporary, etc.) If you had a specific work or type of portrait in mind, did you find what you were looking for? Why or why not? Fill in your thoughts and findings on your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
MAKE YOUR OWN PORTRAIT THROUGH SELFIES
Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the power of portraiture, let’s create our own portraits.
Begin by taking a selfie of yourself, or a photo of a friend, family member, or pet using your phone or computer camera. By adopting the role of portraitist, you are responsible for creating your own or someone else’s representation. Consider the following questions as you plan your portrait.
- How do you want to portray yourself?
- What expression or emotion will you use?
- What fashion choices will you make?
- What pose will you take?
- What space will you occupy?
- What props (if any) will you include?
If taking a portrait of someone else, how do you consider their identity and how they wish to be represented? Do you have a conversation with them about how they want to be portrayed?
If you would like inspiration, feel free to return to any of the portraits we’ve looked at. Think about how what is included (or not included) conveys meaning. For example, depicting someone with books could demonstrate their emphasis on education. Write a short reflection about the thought process behind your portrait in your Nasher Museum Exploration Worksheet.
Once you’ve taken your selfie portrait, and if you’re comfortable sharing your portrait (and if you worked with someone else, that your subject agrees to sharing their image) upload the image as your Zoom profile picture – this will give you a chance to showcase the portrait to your classmates during a Zoom discussion about your portraits and the decisions you’ve made in preparing the image.
These materials will serve for the foundation of a class discussion on identity and representation in portraiture, and how we can advocate for ourselves and others to be represented.