UA Professor and Grad Student Co-Present Research on African American Portraiture

Wendy Castenell

Dr. Wendy Castenell, assistant professor of art history, and graduate student Amber Quinn were invited to share the Zoom stage recently to talk about their related research topics in a lecture titled “Portraiture and Identity in American Art and Art History,” sponsored by Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

In their talks, the art historian and the artist both focused on the power of portraiture, but each approached the topic from a very different point of view. “It is the institution’s first lecture between an art historian and an artist,” said faculty host Dr. Christa DiMarco, when introducing the speakers. “[This event] invites us to think about the power of representation in the arts and how history shapes our present.”

Dr. Castenell, who specializes in African American art, presented a lecture, “The Architects of Reconstruction: Alcès Family Portraits as Emblems of Afro-Creole Leadership,” that focused on portraiture in post-Civil War New Orleans. She told the story of artistic production and patronage in New Orleans among “a class of assertive and vocal Afro-Creole leaders” who became political activists in the city after its fall to the Union in 1862, through the period of Reconstruction, using examples of the paintings and photographic portraits they commissioned.

Amber Quinn, “Unmarked,” 18 x 24 inches; and “Fleeting pt. 1,”  20 x 30 inches, both satin inkjet prints. Courtesy of the artist.

Then Quinn, a third-year graduate student in photography, discussed her body of work, titled Fragmented and Forgotten, which was her MA thesis exhibition this summer. The work centered around Quinn’s experiments with staged portraits and vernacular imagery: snapshots, mementos and ephemera from family photo albums. In these works, she photographed herself, an African American woman, posing as an antebellum enslaved woman, she said, using self-portraiture to insert herself into the reality of an enslaved woman’s experience. Quinn explained to the audience, “I am interested in the notion of how our unknown and involuntary inheritance from our history still affects me currently. By inserting myself within this body of work I am able to have a clearer understanding of the composed façade the enslaved woman had to maintain. This creative discovery through self-portraiture also helped me to better understand the hidden transcripts of the enslaved woman’s experience that were often silenced.”

Dr. Castenell, who has worked with Quinn since she began the master’s program in photography, suggested her as a co-lecturer to Dr. DiMarco. Castenell said that there were more than 130 people present for the talk. “[Quinn] had a huge number of comments, especially from students telling her how inspired they were by her work.”

Quinn recalled, “One of the audience members asked me how my work had been perceived by my professors and within the academic art setting. I responded that, as supportive as the art faculty and staff have been here at The University of Alabama and where I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Montevallo, I have always felt some form of disconnect due to the lack of Black representation on the staff and within my academic spaces. There are no Black faculty members in the studio arts at UA. Although I have found my support system and people who I feel comfortable speaking with about my research, there are still limitations to what they can relate to when it comes to my research as well as what I am experiencing. As helpful as members of the faculty are, it is a challenge to try and relay my experiences and my existence to an audience that doesn’t look like me.”

There is a YouTube video of Castenell’s and Quinn’s talks here.

For more information about The University of Alabama’s programs in art history and studio art, visit our Degree Programs page.