The highlight of our busy visiting lecture season was a talk by Sarah Lewis, assistant professor of History of Art and African American Studies at Harvard University. Sarah Lewis is a bestselling author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Master, a widely acclaimed exploration of human creative experience. She held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate Modern, London. She served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and currently serves on the advisory council of the International Review of African-American Art and the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, Creative Time, and The CUNY Graduate Center.
In her lecture on March 7, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Professor Lewis shared the results of her fascinating research on 19th century photography which is the theme of her book Black Sea, Black Atlantic: Frederick Douglass, the Circassian Beauties, and American Racial Formation in the Wake of the Civil War, forthcoming at Harvard University Press. Her strikingly innovative approach to the interpretation of visual images is informed by Frederick Douglass’ argument that “poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove that contradiction.”
Professor Lewis’ study focuses on the Caucasus mountain range in Russia and explores how the emerging technology of photography was used in the 19th century to develop myths of Caucasian racial identity, and by extension, the notion of racial purity. These “thought pictures” about race, as Frederick Douglass might have called them, underscore the nervous tenuousness at the heart of the racial project throughout the 20th century. Uniquely situated at an intersection of African American Studies, Art History, and Slavic Studies, Sarah Lewis’ research reveals the enduring power of these Black Sea-related photographs of Circassia on the American imagination during its formative years.