With two locations—one close to home, the other halfway around the world—The Parthenon serves as a landmark for both the city of Nashville and Western culture in general. This building has occupied a focal point for photographer Carlton Wilkinson, the owner of In The Gallery, Vanderbilt faculty member and native Nashvillian who grew up very close to Centennial Park. Classical Greek art, represented no place more so than in The Parthenon, posed a dilemma for him as an African American artist by establishing models of beauty that excluded people of his community. Wilkinson dedicates some of his best energies to responding to this gap. Since he’s a son of Nashville and an artist, The Parthenon makes the perfect site for a mid-career retrospective of his work.
Wilkinson’s mother was local civil rights activist DeLois Wilkinson, who helped organize the lunch-counter sit-ins in downtown Nashville and later served on the Metro school board. Her participation in a writer’s workshop at Fisk University brought her son into contact with major African American writers and artists like Nikki Giovanni and David Driskell. The younger Wilkinson grew up as legal segregation was ending, and he went on to earn degrees in art from Washington University in St. Louis and UCLA. He returned to Nashville and has spent over 20 years building the body of work on display at the Parthenon.
Wilkinson’s photography falls into several distinct groupings that serve to varying degrees as documentation, reverent memorials and testimonies of African American experience. Examples of the first are his color photographs of recent trips to Africa, while an early series from the 1980s, of churches involved in the civil rights movement, has a strong commemorative quality. The photos in the Contemporary Voices series give voice to African American men by combining portraits of them with personal histories and their own descriptions of themselves.
The most aesthetically involved portion of Wilkinson’s work, and the part that forms the touchstone of his entire oeuvre, is his African Male Museum series. Started in 1989 and continuing today, it consists of primarily black-and-white photographs of African American men and boys, mostly unclothed, though not shown in a lascivious fashion. Poems by Wilkinson and others accompany the images. Here, the photographer seeks to counteract the usual handling of the African American male body in terms of “violence, sexuality and incompetence,” rather than the physical beauty reserved for Caucasian bodies like those that decorate the Parthenon. Wilkinson’s approach is to the place African American models into compositions building from the formal beauty of their bodies. In “Withdrawal From White Space,” a man sits with his back to the camera in a bright white, featureless space. He bows his head forward, which reduces his body to a dark, compact geometric shape echoed by shadow. The shape the man becomes withdraws into itself.
Wilkinson describes these pictures as a vehicle to allow “male descendents of Africa” to “communicate our thoughts about our identities and experiences.” Although some of the poems are written by others, the primary voice here is the artist’s. His subjects are anonymous models, posed in ways that reflect the vision of the photographer, who understands what forms they’ll take translated through his lens. There is a sense of solidarity here, since both Wilkinson and his subjects are African American men, but there remains a sense of remove as well—a photographer cannot get away from the need for objects to photograph.
Several photographs draw together men and objects, as in “African Reflections 1,” a diptych that pairs a photo of an African sculpture with a portrait of a man. The sculpture has an odd leaning curve, and the man is posed in a way that imitates the incline of the sculpture. The portrait reflects on the humanity underlying this piece of African art, but it also creates an equivalence between the man and the object: the sculpture is something you would see in a museum, which brings us back to Wilkinson’s project to create a museum of African American men. Putting people of color into museums has a troubled history, and Wilkinson seems willing to provoke the comparisons.
One of the great insights of this series lies in using the characteristics of black-and-white photography as a medium for observations about “blackness.” First of all, the images make it obvious that African Americans do not have black skin. Wilkinson drives this point explicitly in the one color photo of the set, “Black, White and Grey,” which shows an African American man with splashes of white and black paint on his chest and gray paint on his hands. None of the paint colors come anywhere near matching his skin color.
If you look closely at the black-and-white photos in the series, you see gradations of skin tone produced by the photographer’s choices of lighting, camera settings and printing. These images show the inherent subjectivity of skin color and, by implication, of most human characteristics. The interaction of photographer and camera reminds us that perceptions are shaped by our consciousness and our perceptive apparatus, which we use to select one of many possible views. By extension, this reminds us of each person’s capacity to “contain multitudes,” in Walt Whitman’s words. The photos contain a vision of humanness that is immensely dignifying, foremost for African American men, who are so often reduced to the worst of stereotypes.
Many of the images are stronger within the group than as individual works. Taken individually, some of the model’s poses are excessively arty or make forced attempts to capture a spiritual concept in gesture. The studio setting is naturally cold and recalls the slickness of advertising work. If some of these photographs don’t stand so well on their own, the same can be said of other famous series, like August Sanders’ Man of the Twentieth Century.
A secondary effect of this exhibit has been to show the power of photographic images, even unoffending ones, well beyond the intentions of the photographer. When the show opened late last year, there was a brief period of controversy regarding one of the images. “Sun One” portrays a boy, shirtless, hands on hips in a defiant and proud stance. He wears an African-inspired medallion by local artist Sammie Nicely. The Metro Parks Department was nervous about this photograph, citing an incident involving inappropriate activity between an adult and a child in Centennial Park sometime last year. Officials were concerned that displaying the photo would not be “appropriate,” which could mean they feared it might spark anxieties about children’s safety, or be seen as insensitive to those fears. In the end, they agreed to keep the photo in this show, but the controversy recalls the trouble photographer Sally Mann has gotten into for her photographs of her children. But while Mann self-consciously invoked an eroticization of her subjects, Wilkinson has no such purpose. His position is simple. “I have one cause: to instill pride.” The reaction to this photo provides a good example of how, whatever the photographer’s intentions, he or she cannot entirely control how an image is understood or used.
For his part, Wilkinson tunes in to how images can matter in a positive way, which comes out strongly in “The Night Before Change.” He portrays his female subject here as a regal person, as much so as his portrait of a Yoruba chief. She is a mature woman, naked from the chest up, wrapped in generous folds of creamy yellow cloth. Wilkinson took the portrait of this woman, a friend, the night before she went into the hospital for a double mastectomy, providing her with a view of herself that she would never be able to have again. A simple photograph could have served the purpose of recollecting her body before the operation, but this goes further and historicizes the woman. She sits in front of printed cloth hangings and a set of sticks capped with charms made from bottles, evoking the decoration of a traditional African dwelling. The cloth, the bottles and many other details make this woman a daughter, or a mother, of a distinct history. The image could not be further from the sterility of the operating table.
The intention to heal, soothe pain, reclaim and redeem runs through all of Wilkinson’s photographs. In the African Male Museum, he seeks to “demystify and dispel anxiety about the black male” and replace psychologically toxic self-images with “my own proud vision.” He points out that the media is filled with images, as in the Chronicles of Narnia, of “young, promising white kings and queens.” Wilkinson creates some of the same for black men, women and children.