In the recess of Union Theological Seminary is the school’s grand dining room, or refectory, as such places are called in seminaries. It’s an impressive space that can be taken for granted when one is busy with deadlines, student-loan worries and a calling. Built as part of the campus in 1928, the refectory has born witness to thousands of the world’s most progressive religious scholars, including Black Liberation founder James Cone, Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves and founding Womanist scholar Delores Williams.
Currently on view around the room, bracketed between dark wood paneling and the high arched ceiling, are 16 beige painted rectangles, including one ensconced in a prewar, built-in, gilded mold over the large fireplace. The rectangles are silhouettes of the portraits of former Union board members and school presidents that traditionally occupy the space. Throughout the day light filters in through the stained-glass windows and the stucco texture of the walls casts tiny shadows that creep along as night grows near. As an intern at Union, I have been hearing students talk about a lightness in the room that was once absorbed by the imposing portraits. I see people look up and wonder what is missing in a way they did not do before. The portraits’ absence, along with an accompanying publication, make up an exhibition titled About Face: Portraits at Union Theological Seminary, by artist Cathy Busby.
Union was once a burgeoning, if unexpected, hotspot for contemporary art in New York City. The New York Times reviewed school productions and students engaged in high-level discussions about the influence of aesthetics on faith. With time, that focus has changed, yet a lingering essence remains. Union offers a Theology and the Arts program, and most promisingly, in 2010, pioneering artist AA Bronson and Yale-educated theologian Kathryn Reklis founded the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, which explores the relationship between art and religion through social justice.
Busby, who was part of an earlier exhibition Bronson curated for the Institute and whose father was a graduate of Union, visited the school last year. Walking around, she was taken by the portraits and their obvious state of their disrepair — the tears, scores and rips hanging for the world to see. She wondered what to make of these public wounds. Upon returning to her home in Canada, she proposed a residency in which she would, in her own words, “reposition them (the portraits) physically and in discourse.” The Institute accepted, and in January of this year Busby began scouring the hallowed halls to discover what she could about the portraits.
Busby has made a career as an artist working with collections, in order to unearth the unseen. In her 2010 exhibition Atrium, she combed through the entire collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to identify work connected to the First Nations experience but not included in the gallery’s First Nations collection. It was, for Busby, a gesture towards rectifying a silence, one that occurs in institutions due to lack of resources or misplaced will. At Union, as she began to look into the portraits, what she found were more portraits. Behind stacks of chairs, in the backs of closets and in oversized plastic bags were more damaged portraits, works that had been either been neglected or purposely put in harm’s way.
“In my practice I work with things as they are. And though I care about the portraits as artworks and historical documents, I’m not recommending their restoration,” writes Busby in her introduction to the About Face publication. Instead she embarked on a project of documenting all 63 portraits she found, researching the sitters and the artists that painted them. I, along with a few other interns and interested people, assisted Busby where we could. Through the efforts of Kim Parkhill and Union Archivist Ruth Tonkiss Cameron, Busby discovered that 13 portraits once accounted for were now missing. If the wounds were one mystery, the lost works were another. But as Busby started to see it, both represented uneasiness in the institution’s attitude towards the portraits. Why?
Hoping to get a people’s history, Busby began talking to the Union community about the works. The majority of the people interviewed — many of whose stories are shared with permission in the About Face book — said they felt frustrated by the portraits. Initially Busby had wanted to hang all of the recovered works salon style in a compact space in the Social Hall, but as she spoke with students, faculty and guests, she changed her mind: she would take the portraits down. The removal was a gesture towards uncovering a long silence, a privileging of the stories and experiences stemming from the portraits rather than the works themselves.
At the heart of many people’s frustration is the oppression that the portraits replicate. Of the 63 paintings, all but 5 are of men, all but 2 are of white people and all but 1 are upper class. The portraits speak to the lack of diversity within Union’s leadership (historically and currently); they do not speak truth to the diversity of Union students, the school’s impact, nor the world most Union stakeholders are working towards. In the About Face book, Womanist scholar Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman says:
It seems to me there is a disconnect between the ethos of Union and the décor, particularly as represented in those paintings. Who is remembered? Who is honored? What would it mean to envisage different kinds of portraits? These current portraits raise such questions to the inquiring eye, but otherwise they confirm the status quo that this is a space of White power, authority and male superiority.
In addition to ignoring race, class and gender difference, the portraits also fail to fully capture the characters of the people depicted. Because of the formulaic aspect of portraits during the majority of the time the paintings were created (early 1880s to late 1990s), all of the sitters end up seeming similar; there is no hint that one was arrested on the White House lawn for civil disobedience or that another, a lifelong right-to-die advocate, planned his own peaceful death. There is no suggestion that in 1968, during a student rebellion, the paintings were taken down in protest of Union’s governance. The portraits, while proposing to function as bearers of history, cover up the past. The stories that surround them, once locked in people’s memories or footnoted in textbooks, are now accessible through About Face.
During Busby’s time at Union, Occupy groups around the country began reorganizing in anticipation of spring, while a student uprising flooded the streets of Montreal and Union students themselves protested against a staff firing. There is a widespread hunger for those in power to be questioned and held accountable. Part of this process will be a reconsideration of who holds authority, and who has held traditionally it.
“If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past,” said historian Howard Zinn, “it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.” At its heart, About Face is about the limitations of representation and about uncovering the stories that make up the history of the everyday. During her residency at the Institute, Busby created a different kind of portrait — a collective one of the Union community during the winter and spring of 2012, rooted around a conversation about the paintings themselves. It is this specificity, this move towards radical objectivity, that the removed portraits lack, and that people, at this point in history, crave.
About Face continues in the refectory at Union Theological Seminary (3041 Broadway at 121st Street, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through tomorrow, Satruday, May 26.