The First Kin

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Whitfield Lovell, Kin I (Our Folks), 2008. Conté on paper, paper flags, and string, 30 x 22 1/2 in. Collection of Reginald and Aliya Browne © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York

The importance of home, family, ancestry feeds my work entirely. African Americans were generally not aware of who their ancestors were, since slaves were sold from plantation to plantation and families were split up. Any time I pick up one of these old vintage photographs, I have the feeling that this could be one of my ancestors.—Whitfield Lovell

It was quite unexpectedly, in response to seeing a young boy in an ID photograph, that Whitfield Lovell began the first in his ongoing series of Kin works. As he recalled, “There was something about the emotion in his eyes that immediately spoke to me. I was compelled to draw that young man’s face at a certain life-like scale, and to capture as much of his expression as I could.” Lovell’s subtitle for the work, “Our Folks,” set the tone for the series, which has grown to a veritable family of 60 some relations—each one individualized with the artist’s careful attention to capturing the character of his subjects and their distinctive facial attributes.

The banner of American paper flags beneath the male figure, one of various flag motifs that recur in subsequent works by the artist, alludes to the complicated history of patriotism for African Americans, expressed by Frederick Douglass as early as 1852 when he asked a crowd in Rochester, New York, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”

Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works is on view through Jan. 8, 2017.

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