Art of Jacob Lawrence Highlights Privilege of Known Histories

Arts2 min. read

Sophia Reyes ’23 understands firsthand the value of uplifting neglected pasts

Sophia Reyes
Sophia Reyes '23 in the Colby College Museum of Art exhibition Examining the Art of Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture. As a curatorial intern, Reyes’s research uplifts Lawrence’s passion for bringing hidden histories to light. “The big point is that Black culture has to reclaim revolutionary histories.”
By Isabella Marin '23Photography by Jasper Lowe
November 22, 2021

In looking toward the history of his ancestors, Jacob Lawrence found one thing: silence. 

He saw an abundance of neglected histories. 

Instead of the story of a Haitian revolutionary hero, Lawrence saw a blank page before him. 

So, he began to paint. 

Starting in the late 1930s, Jacob Lawrence grappled with the same hands continually writing history, omitting marginalized voices. Spanning both historical and personal themes, the Harlem Renaissance artist’s work rediscovers little-known histories and illustrates the depth of the Black lived experience. 

To contribute to this uplifting of neglected histories, Sophia Reyes ’23 spent the summer as a curatorial intern at the Colby College Museum of Art conducting research on Jacob Lawrence and his work. The artist’s ambition to rewrite history captivated Reyes, a Posse Scholar from Houston. Reflecting on how important Lawrence could have been to her predominantly Black and Latinx high school, Reyes sought to heighten awareness about the artist.

Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint L’Ouverture from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986. Silkscreen on paper, 28 3/8 x 18 ½”. The Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene; 2020.022.6.

With this in mind, Reyes, a studio art major and an environmental studies minor, performed research about both the artist and Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian hero and subject of Lawrence’s series on display at the Colby Museum. Her work culminated in a paper complementing the exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Lawrence’s first narrative series, The Life of Toussaint LOuverture, stands as a tribute both to the revolutionary Louverture and the genesis of Haiti, the first republic founded by former slaves. The museum’s recently acquired 15-print series is an abridged version of the original The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series of paintings crafted in 1938. In this 1997 version, Lawrence reworks the ending of his original series in which Jean-Jacques Dessalines is crowned emperor of newly independent Haiti. Instead, Lawrence closes the print series with an image of Black resistance. This final image illustrates five armed revolutionaries marching forward purposefully. Toward the center of the piece, a sharp red wound erupts from one of the figure’s chest, disrupting the image of their unified stride. This reworked ending, signifying Lawrence’s aged perspective, depicts the revolution as an unfinished, ongoing fight for racial justice and liberation.

“These actions that happened so many centuries ago, we’re still seeing the consequences of them today. It’s heartbreaking because we have nothing to do with that. That’s generations ago, and yet here we are still having to battle these battles that our ancestors created.

Sophia Reyes ’23

In her analysis, Reyes contrasted how Louverture was depicted by Lawrence and by previous artists. In older representations, Louverture is painted with blatantly racist features and as heavily equipped, surrounded by a weaponless crowd. In Lawrence’s representation, she noted, everyone bears a weapon, ensuring Louverture is not definitively pinned as the aggressor. This image denotes war rather than manslaughter, hero rather than villain. 

Furthermore, comparing the work to Lawrence’s 1938-40 series on Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, Reyes was struck by the intricate narrative a sole illustration could convey. “I think because [these stories] are so hard to hear, it’s one of the reasons why they’re not told. And, seeing them visually, you’re not hearing them. You’re seeing them.” Though the stories and figures vary significantly, she noted, the three series remain cohesive in their embrace of geometric abstraction and their ability to evoke emotion. Each series, through the brutality of these untold histories, stimulates a uniform shock. 

Jacob Lawrence, To Preserve their Freedom from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1988. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 1/2 in. The Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene; 2020.022.15.

Connecting her research to her own Indigenous lived experience, Reyes reflected on the erasure of history. “I know to some extent what it’s like to have your whole history, or your whole ancestry, taken away by colonizers. I know what it’s like to not know my history,” remarked Reyes. “To know your ancestry and your history is, in a sense, a privilege.” 

This project, to Reyes, serves to illuminate these historical figures and Lawrence himself. She hopes it will function as a reminder of this privilege and as a helpful resource for scholars to continue this work of illustrating neglected histories.

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