April 5-27, 2019
My Black Victorian series of oil portraits is inspired by historical photographs and stories of Black Americans and Europeans in the 19th to early 20th century. The Victorian era is generally understood to encompass the reign of England’s Queen Victoria from 1837-1901. However, for the purpose of this series, the term “Black Victorians” encompasses Black people living in Great Britain, the United States, and France during the Victorian era to the Gilded Age. In researching this series, I was struck by the very existence of people who looked like me living in this time. As I read their stories, I was drawn to paint them and present through imagery this other part Victorian society. In creating this series, I share my own story.
Growing up as a biracial woman, I have always cherished my diverse background. My father, a Black American, grew up on welfare in Tulsa housing but would later become a successful businessman. He instilled in me a love for speaking and exploring black culture. My mother, a white American, grew up enjoying the desert terrain of Arizona. She instilled in me a love for the country and the outdoors. Both my father and mother raised me to be both aware and celebratory of my diversity. My father was very intentional about exposing me to different forms of black culture. In processing this, I realize that race and skin tone are only small parts of one’s identity. Blackness cannot be put into a box, just as whiteness cannot be confined to any specific way of being. I often laugh to myself when people say that I talk white because my father is the one who taught me how to present myself, use clear diction, and develop my vocabulary. Comments such as these move me to question people’s understanding of race, culture and identity.
Furthermore, as a Christian I firmly believe that Eve is the mother of all living. There is only one race and that is the human race. Yet, we have learned as a society to understand each other through the social construct of race. Now we have to be mindful to consciously and consistently examine and re-examine how we associate race, culture and identity.
During my final stages of finishing my masters in education, I came across some images that further affirmed my beliefs and sparked a new passion in me. I discovered photographs of Black Europeans and Americans ranging from the Victorian era to the Gilded Age. I found a society of Black people who did more than assimilate into Victorian society. They expanded what black and Victorian culture looked like. Thus they proved that cultural identity and personal identity cannot be confined or solely defined by skin tone. This sparked a fervor in me to further immortalize these people through the power of the portrait.
Consequently, the aim of this body of work is to invite viewers to reexamine their idea of what 19th to early 20th century Victorian society looked like and thereby resist any notion that would put race and culture in a box. My hope is to inspire people to celebrate—and recalibrate–the beautiful complexity of human identity.
Charica Daugherty, April 2019