State of the Arts: The problems with our portraiture

Lala Hilizah (C’21) stands alongside portraits in duPont Library. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Executive Staff

Lala Hilizah (C’21) grew up Episcopalian and serves as a sacristan at All Saints’ Chapel. So when she encountered the many portraits of Sewanee’s bishops, trustees, chancellors, and vice-chancellors hanging on the walls of Convocation Hall, duPont Library, and McGriff Alumni House, she took them as representations of the Episcopal Church, where many of the bishops and persons in positions of power are white men. But as a black woman, she also heard another message.

“[The portraits] don’t faze me as much as they do other people,” she said. “I realize that Sewanee wasn’t made for me, point blank, period. To this day, I don’t feel like it’s made for me, so in that regard, I don’t sympathize or hold any immense love or dedication to this school.”

The portraits are uniform and unavoidable: they dominate many of the spaces at Sewanee, almost every one of them depicting a white man in a leadership role. Despite their presumed passivity where they hang on the walls of this University, these portraits affect students of color and minority students on this campus, whether consciously or unconsciously, and changes the spaces they inhabit.

“This is what we would call a classic environmental microaggression,” said Dr. Al Bardi, chair of the psychology department. “I would describe it as a poke in the eye, and it’s one that’s unnecessary.”

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, who is well known for his research on microaggressions, defines them as the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Bardi recalls a talk delivered by Sue that addresses the particular microaggression that the portraits perpetuate. As a visibly Asian person, Sue has spoken to crowds in rooms where he was surrounded by figures of white men who are leaders. There were no other images of leaders of different genders or races or ethnicities present.

“It is a message that people hear,” said Bardi. “It is a message that this place tends to support the lives and careers of white men over others.”

But one cannot speak of the portraits without speaking of the history of this institution. Sewanee has historically been – and still is – predominantly white, and these framed images serve as representations and reminders of a history that many are unwilling to part with. The common justification for the presentation of these portraits is that of historical significance: that they are an accurate reflection of our past and therefore deserve their places on these walls.

The real reason for the emergence of these portraits, however, is one of practicality: there was a large portrait collection and no place in which to store it.

In an attempt to adorn different spaces with the art, Dr. Mishoe Brennecke (C’84) of the art department was involved in the move to hang the 19th century portraits of founders, early trustees, chancellors, and vice-chancellors in Convocation Hall. The more recent portraits were taken to duPont Library. The 20th and 21st century vice chancellors graced the first room that houses the Center for Speaking and Listening and the Writing Center, and then on the walls of the rest of the Learning Commons, hang the portraits of the chancellors.

In recent years, there have been portraits commissioned of retired faculty, and these have taken up abode in McGriff Alumni House. Of these three spaces wherein these portraits are prominently displayed, McGriff at least is home to portraits of two retired female faculty members. Prior to this, the small handful of women portraits – including one of Linda Bright Lankewicz, Sewanee’s first female Provost who served from 2002 to 2011 – were sequestered in the Bairnwick Women’s Center.

According to Brennecke, there was “no rationale” behind the portraits. She was given a task and she saw it to execution. But the problem of storage space still persists. Today, the University Archives is home to hundreds of portraits, most of which were donated, and therefore cannot be disposed of.

Mary O’Neill, the slide librarian for the departments of art and art history as well as for other academic departments, works at the University Archives. She recalls Provost John Swallow’s (C’89) request to move all the portraits and paintings that had previously been in Spencer Hall and the Administrative Offices in Walsh-Ellett to the Archives, which placed an added strain on their storage space.

“What would be nice is if we had a museum in which all of this could be displayed and rotated in and out,” says O’Neill, gesturing to the large collection that is systematically stored in the Archives basement.

Among the current collection are two portraits that had been saved from Rebel’s Rest before it burned as well as more than 50 paintings of a Russian prince which had been donated to the University. Large paintings that had once graced the walls of Gailor when it had been a dining hall now rest in a narrow corridor on the second floor of the building.

But the problem is more than apparent: even if the portraits in Convocation Hall and duPont Library were to be returned to storage, there is simply no space for them in the Archives.

In terms of diversifying the collection to include more works by persons of color and by women, Brennecke believes that there should be more effort put into acquisition funds, and suggests the formation of a student committee who would be involved in selecting the art to be acquired for the University.

“We need buying power to move forward, to diversify,” she said, “because the collection of chancellors and vice chancellors is only going to grow.”

But until that happens, the portraits remain. Already Convocation Hall is a space with a reputation for formality – the portraits perhaps contribute to this – and is a space that most multicultural organizations on campus are hesitant to utilize.

In the past year, the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU), the African and Caribbean Student Association (ACASA), and the Sewanee Asian Organization (SAO) have not hosted any events at Convocation Hall. The Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness (HOLA) has hosted one, but according to their president Edgar Huerta (C’21), it was because “it was the only place available.”

“It’s too formal of a room,” said Gayle Manacsa (C’21), the interorganizational spokesperson for SAO. “The event history of the space does play a role when selecting a venue for an event. The repetition of the use of [Convocation] as a venue for ‘formal’ events leads students to believe that it can’t be used for parties or fashion shows.”

Manacsa also mentions that the portraits do not “give a vibe of inclusion.” To Bardi, the caution with which multicultural and minority students approaches the space makes sense.

“It could be that people are unconsciously avoiding Convocation – that wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. “They wouldn’t necessarily put their finger on it, [but] looming portraits of our Sewanee history in that way, [that] privileged history creates a space that is maybe not as comfortable and people maybe just don’t choose it.”

But what would it be like if the portraits displayed included those of women and persons of color instead of just white men? How would it contribute to the mentality of the students at this University? If there is variation in the visual representation that students are subject to every day, would spaces like Convocation Hall be more welcoming to students of color and minority students?

For Hilizah, it would be a welcome change.

“I think, personally, my morale and my love for the University would exponentially shoot up,” she said. “I would feel most definitely heard, recognized, respected, because there’s not one single depiction of a black woman on this campus. Like I said, I am very cognizant that the school’s not built for me; I guess visual representation plays a large role in why I feel that way.”

For Bardi, it is a matter of educational values as much as it is a matter of mental health.

“Microaggressions when they add up, when they sum up, they’re distracting, they take up emotional resources, and studies have shown that when they activate these kinds of [mentalities], microaggressions and stereotypes, people perform less well,” he said. “So as an institution of higher learning, don’t we want to avoid activating those for our students? Don’t we want all our students to have the best shot?”


One comment

  1. The vast majority of institutions in this country over 100 years old were founded or led by white men. There are multiple reasons for this which surprise no one. Also, all these people have been dead for generations. If you can’t handle this, you’re not mature enough be in college.

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