During her presentation in the Torian Room, Professor Jessica Wohl gestures to Mandy Tu (C’21), whose State of the Arts article inspired this project. Photo by Katherine LeClair (C’21).
By Richard Pryor III
Near the closing of her State of the Arts article published in The Purple in March, Mandy Tu (C’21) posed these questions to the Sewanee community about “the problems with our portraiture.”
“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?”
It’s not Convocation Hall, but duPont Library has many of the same issues. In the learning commons on the first floor, the walls are lined with pictures of the white men who have served Sewanee as Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors. But that is slowly starting to change, if only for now, through the addition of two new exhibits – a replica tapestry and paintings of a diverse group of members of the Sewanee family.
The first piece hung up was a selection of a tapestry similar to one that was formerly hung up in McGriff alumni house. Entitled “The Amazon Queen in Battle,” this selection from the tapestry shows Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, a race of warrior women, leading her forces into the battle as they fight on behalf of Troy in the Trojan War. Next to her, Diomedes, one of the best Greek warriors in the War, lies on the ground, defeated by her.
The tapestry is a reproduction made in the 20th century of a 15th-century tapestry displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. That fact is only known because of a group of faculty gathered together by classics professor Chris McDonough who researched the older tapestry, along with their students, in the spring of 2018 – Rob Bachman in chemistry, Stephanie Batkie and Maha Jafri in English, Greg Clark and Alison Miller in art history, and Jennifer Matthews in theatre.
They were joined by students Kate Barlow (C’18), Phillip Berger (C’19), Elizabeth Estes (C’18), Lillian McCrary (C’20), Ford Peay (C’19), Campbell Stuart (C’20), and Suzanna Yancey (C’19). This interdisciplinary group met weekly over the course of the semester to share their findings about the tapestry.
“Its function as a decorative object was at an end,” McDonough noted, but that did not mean they couldn’t learn from it. Presenting their research at Scholarship Sewanee that spring, they concluded that it was too damaged to do anything else. But then, like things often do in Sewanee, a fortunate coincidence occurred as well.
That spring, the working group found a section from another replica of the same tapestry up for auction and bought it for $800. This summer, Greer King (C’21), a student of Matthews, was an undergraduate research fellow for her and McDonough, hand-sewing a cotton backing to the tapestry, making it ready to be hung up.
The tapestry now hangs in the library, under the paintings of Sewanee’s three most recent Vice-Chancellors. McDonough said that the opportunity to hang it was a great way to honor the original tapestry gift from Charles Thomas. Additionally, he noted that it was appropriate for the 50 Years of Women celebration, as well as to highlight interdisciplinary work. The tapestry will soon be joined by a computer screen that will offer viewers a chance to look through the conclusions that the research group came to.
Additionally, a series of 18 pictures painted by students in Professor Jessica Wohl’s topics in contemporary painting class also adorn the walls of the Learning Commons. Entitled Faces of Sewanee, the 14 students in the class selected one or two figures from Sewanee’s present or past to paint and hang below the portraits of the men who were instrumental in Sewanee’s founding.
Students study in duPont Library among the Faces of Sewanee exhibit. Photo courtesy of Jessica Wohl.
Wohl stated that “This exhibit allows members of our community, some for the first time, to see themselves, or someone like them, on the walls of our institution. The project is part of an important conversation institutions are having nationwide regarding who has been worthy of revere and representation in the past, and who is worthy of representation in the present and the future.”
During her presentation at the opening of the exhibit, Wohl loaded a Powerpoint slide that showed the rich variety and diversity that the painters were able to highlight in their art. This exhibition offered students the space to publicly engage with Tu’s opening questions, influencing the communal memory of which traditions, stories, and legacies are retained through the faces of Sewanee’s community and the inherent power of portraiture.
(Above) Margaret Evans by Jonathan Godbold (C’22).
(Right) Dr. Houston Roberson by Anna Douglas Smith (C’20).