Every country documents itself. How it does so is at least as informative as the documents themselves. Two exhibits closing this weekend at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill show American self-documentation from pre-colonial and 20th-century perspectives, adding up to a fractured national portrait that strongly resonates with the polarized politics of the current moment.
The New Found Land: Engravings by Theodor de Bry from the Collection of Michael N. Joyner reveals the earliest European impressions of Native Americans. Over 40 engravings from the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia record the appearance and habits of native people as seen by British settlers on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina.
Harriot’s book—where Adam and Eve grace the frontispiece—served as the 16th century’s version of a glossy recruitment brochure, enticing Europeans to join the colonization. Harriot sought to show the land as fertile, the rivers and forests as teeming with life and the people as noble, hardworking and ready to be saved by their civilized superiors from across the Atlantic. These engravings, some hand-colored, fit into the canon of problematic conceptualizations of Native Americans alongside Lewis and Clark’s journals and Edward S. Curtis’ sepia photographs.
The most interesting moments in this dense exhibit come when the original source watercolors, painted in situ by British artists visiting the island, are displayed next to the engravings they’re based on. Working in his London engraving studio, de Bry’s editing of the images reveals a colonial advertiser’s eye at work.
A John White painting entitled “Indians Round a Fire” shows a tight circle of native men. Sketchily portrayed, they relax around a central fire. But their postures are more than just cleaned up in the etching. The men are dramatically muscled and posed, as if hewn from marble. Their faces take on European features, as well.
While the original watercolor lacks a background, the etching places the scene on a shoreline, beyond which the boats of fisherman are seen. Non-native plants surround the fire, framing the composition. And the etching adds a pair of women to the side of the circle, gesturing toward the fire, giving the viewer a representative within the scene to mediate its otherness.
Leaping into the 20th century, America Seen: The Hunter and Cathy Allen Collection of Social Realist Prints gathers 38 prints from the interwar period, showing colonial results several generations removed from Harriot's book. Concerned largely with labor and urban hardship, many of these etchings, dry points, lithographs and woodcuts were produced by artists working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal project to put the unemployed masses back to work. Overall, the exhibit both expresses and embodies the exhaustion of the bounty that Harriot’s book had tried to sell.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically, America Seen presents several thin cross-sections of a country digging deep to find the will to persevere through economic and social hardship. For every image of vibrant urban life—like Cecil Crosley Bell’s “Subway Rush” (1931), in which all manner of city demographics rush together toward the closing train doors—there are several others of its exhausted aftermath, as in Fritz Eichenberg’s “Sleep” (1935).
The Eichenberg image has its layers, however. In this subway car interior, all the passengers lean against each other in slumber. Beneath the words “Invite Romance,” a sultry woman on a poster looks down upon a young couple nestled together, too tired from working to obey the command. But another woman at the center of the scene appears activated in her sleep, a halo-like shape ringing her head. Her dreams are unknown, but their potential casts a holy light upon the other sleepers.
Another lithograph might seem naggingly familiar to a viewer’s eyes. Don Freeman’s “Late Edition” (1934) portrays a wintry night drop of newspapers to paperboys. An image of child labor, it also conveys a kind of bundled-up cheer in its swirling choreography. Freeman’s better known as the author and illustrator of the classic children’s book Corduroy. In the context of this social realist image, his beloved book becomes a tale of urban poverty as much as one of a girl’s love for a stuffed bear.
The New Found Land and America Seen also fit into a trend of UNC-Chapel Hill alumni collections being featured at the Ackland. Cathy Allen (’73), now based in Atlanta with her husband Hunter, has donated the social realist collection to the museum’s growing store of prints. Michael N. Joyner (’77) has lent his collection of de Bry’s prints, and Harriot’s source materials, for this show.
Although these exhibits are not casual stroll-throughs—the de Bry prints particularly require a lot of reading for context—they intersect in conceptually thrilling ways, especially if you place recent events like Moral Mondays into a larger, longer political narrative. The North Carolina you walk into once you leave the Ackland can be seen as a third exhibition following the two inside the museum.
A "Last Look" tour of both exhibitions at 4 p.m. on Sunday is free and open to the public.