Meta Warrick's 1907 'Negro Tableaux' and (Re)Presenting African American Historial Memory, by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Teaching the Article

Teaching with "Meta Warrick's 1907 'Negro Tableaux'"

The writer and activist Audre Lorde's famous essay title, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," bears directly on the challenge faced by many turn-of-the-century African American intellectuals and artists.1 I often ask students to consider what "tools" African Americans had in their "tool box" that they could use to represent the fullness of their abilities, aspirations, and accomplishments. Given the pervasiveness of racist representations of African Americans in American culture, popular and elite, where and how should African American intellectuals and artists have begun to challenge them?

The dilemma that African American artists faced was acute. Many had struggled against discrimination to acquire and contribute to the canon of Victorian culture. By establishing their ability to uphold and advance "civilization," which was understood to be the highest stage of human development, African American intellectuals aspired to expose the falsehood of black inferiority. Yet these same intellectuals and artists could not avoid the conundrum posed by Lorde. How could African Americans adopt (and adapt) prevailing ideals of beauty, culture, progress, and creativity without at the same time consenting to some of the racist assumptions that permeated those ideals? How could Meta Warrick, a sculptor trained in the classical tradition in Paris, artistically render African Americans and their history at a time when neither were considered fitting artistic subjects?

Meta Warrick's set of tableaux for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, held in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1907, offers a case study of the abstract and practical challenges that she and her peers faced. In addition, Warrick's tableau series is a fascinating but virtually forgotten effort at the visualization of African American history at a time of proliferating cultural experimentation by black artists.

Because dioramas are commonplace features of history museums, students may be unaware that dioramas themselves have a history. They emerged as part of an ongoing experimentation in visual representation that extended back at least to the late-eighteenth-century panorama fad in France and England. During the nineteenth century, the zeal to replicate natural and historical settings found expression in both natural science life exhibits and ethnographic life studies. The enthusiasm for such exhibits raises several questions. Why were audiences so eager to see contrived versions of "reality" replicated in museums? And what did such exhibits "teach" viewers about the natural world and the human cultures they depicted? In what ways did Warrick's tableaux compare to life studies typical of her time? Even students unfamiliar with the history of museum exhibits can discuss the appeal of realistic exhibits to modern sensibilities.

Warrick's dioramas almost certainly drew on the rich tradition of wax models, panoramas, life studies, etc., but they were not simply derivative of that tradition. Students might consider the interpretative and representational steps required to move from an ethnographic life study, shorn of historical context, to Warrick's historical dioramas. Warrick's tableaux are more than just vignettes, or activities frozen in time; they portray historical evolution and black progress with narrative momentum. Viewing the tableaux in sequence and then discussing how Warrick used juxtaposed static scenes to create a narrative may help students to think about how all historical narratives, whether visual or textual, are conceived and created. After viewing the images, students might suggest their own dioramic sequence of African American history. Consider the challenges Warrick faced when she represented the historical experience of African Americans during the slave era ( Scene on a Slave Plantation, A Fugitive Slave, and Organizing a Church in a Blacksmith Shop). What sorts of events of the first two centuries of the African American experience were fitting for depiction? Similarly, ask students how they might devise scenes that trace the "progress" and advancing "civilization" ( Freedman's First Cabin, The Beginnings of Negro Education, Response to the Call to Arms, On His Own Farm, Contractors and Builders, The Savings Bank, and An After Church Scene) of African Americans following emancipation. Even students who are skeptical of the "civilizationist" paradigm that permeated Warrick’s tableaux may appreciate the challenge that Warrick faced when she tried to visualize a trajectory of achievement.

When Warrick created her dioramic sequence, she traced many themes that were commonplace in the "race histories" written by African American historians of the era, especially the transformation of blacks from oppressed slaves to respectable and educated modern Americans. Warrick had encountered those themes at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 in Paris, where Frances Benjamin Johnston's images of Hampton Institute ( Old Time Cabin; Old African American Couple Eating at the Table by Fireplace, Rural Virginia; A [Hampton] Graduate's Home; and A Graduate (Dining) at Home and a collection of photographs gathered by W. E. B. Du Bois were displayed. Students might discuss themes evident in those images and discuss the similarities to and differences from Warrick's dioramas.

If Warrick's general themes were familiar, her specific choices were not. Although the Jamestown exposition of 1907 commemorated a specific historical event in 1607, Warrick avoided representing celebrated events and instead depicted prosaic happenings. Why didn't she depict the shooting of Crispus Attucks, the revolutionary-era black martyr of the Boston Massacre? Or why didn't she depict Harriet Tubman or some other celebrated fugitive slave instead of a nameless runaway? Did the everyday activities of many of her scenes allow for a more democratic, inclusive allegory of black progress than dioramas of celebrated black heroes would have done? Students might consider whether it is more effective to use symbolic fictional figures and actions than actual historical figures and events to express truths and generalizations about the African American experience. Finally, are any significant groups or categories of African Americans absent from her dioramas?

That Warrick created her series of tableaux to be displayed in a segregated Negro Building at an international exposition commemorating the first permanent "Anglo-Saxon" settlement in North America is essential to understanding its significance. Students might ponder why the commissioners of the Negro Exhibit hired Warrick to create the tableaux in the first place. After looking at the image of some of the other exhibits in the Negro Building, students might speculate about how Warrick's dioramas appeared in relation to the other comparatively undramatic exhibits. To what extent did Warrick's dioramas deviate from depictions of Africans and African Americans at previous expositions, such as the Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition? Was the tableau sequence effective "visual proof" of black progress?

After the Jamestown exposition, Warrick's tableaux apparently were either lost or destroyed. Given her commission for the exhibit ($1,800) and the fact that it was one of the first, if not the first, federally commissioned works by an African American artist, its unfortunate fate is striking. By discussing the disappearance of the dioramas, students can begin to consider the obstacles to any permanent installations of African American art at the turn of the twentieth century. If the group of tableaux had been preserved, where could it have been displayed? What museum could it have been displayed in? What audience would it have attracted? And on what grounds would it have been preserved? As a work of art? Or as a historical artifact?

- W. Fitzhugh Brundage

1 Audre Lorde, "'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House,'" in This Bridge Called My Back, ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (Watertown, Mass., 1981), 98-101.