These drawings encapsulate a history of individual and collective opportunity and excellence, as well as disenfranchisement and marginalization. The exhibit contains a mix of well and lesser-known artists, and nameless groups of dancers, who have contributed to the history of dance in America. To be rendered by Hirschfeld is to be immortalized in the fraternity of American popular art. The volume of images in his archive demonstrates a great reverence for the people and art of New York, especially during the Harlem Renaissance era. Ultimately, my intent is to place these dancers at the center of the cannon, not on the margins. A rightful place, as the foundation and evolution of dance in America, on stage and in social settings, is intertwined and indebted to innovation and performances by Black people in America.
In accepting the invitation to curate the images for this exhibit, I am purposefully engaging with the complexities of caricature and race before and during the twentieth century. To draw a caricature is to exaggerate, often to comic or grotesque affect. The same can be said of the damaging, racist images associated with minstrel stereotypes, images that continue to wound centuries after their first appearance. Given the role of racial stereotypes in this particular visual art form, every caricature depiction comes loaded with the weight and implications of history. How does one render exaggerations of physical characteristics as homage or reverence? And how will we recognize it? In her book, The Content of Our Caricature, Rebecca Wanzo notes an important distinction, “Caricatures can be about individuals and thus are not the exact same as stereotypes, even as they can also circulate ideas about groups through stereotyping.” She goes on to assert that while stereotype simplifies and objectifies, caricature is about excess of subject. This is the context though which I have assembled these images.
Melanie George, Guest Curator