Mia L. Bagneris will present at The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation Seminar in New York and American Material Culture on Wednesday, March 2 at 12:15 pm. Her talk is entitled “It Is, Indeed, a Sister’s Form: Black Feminist Pictorial/Poetic Imperatives in an Abolitionist Friendship Album.”

Around 1837, Sarah Mapps Douglass, a prominent member of Philadelphia’s free Black elite, painted a lovely watercolor of a floral bouquet in the friendship album of Elizabeth Smith, a white abolitionist teenager with whom she taught Sunday school. Featuring a large pink rose blossom accented with a dainty sprig of blue forget-me-nots and two specimens of the wild pansy popularly known as heart’s ease, the seemingly innocuous composition initially strikes the viewer as little more than a conventional display of feminine accomplishment. However, beneath the image Douglass penned a powerful inscription whose clever puns dramatically transform the work: “Lady, while you are young and beautiful ‘Forget Not’ the slave, so shall ‘Heart’s Ease’ ever attend you.” The paintings and drawings made by Black women in nineteenth-century friendship albums represent the earliest signed artworks by African American women, and Elizabeth Smith’s album offers two of the most compelling examples: this work by Douglass and a stunning “remix” of abolitionist emblem and verse by Sarah Forten. This talk examines how both artists created sophisticated pictorial-poetic texts that wed word and image to extraordinary effect, radically transforming popular discourses of genteel femininity and hackneyed antislavery tropes. Challenging the popular abolitionist slogan, “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”, both Douglass and Forten refuse to deal in interrogatives that question their status as equals. Instead, they issue bold imperatives to their white friend, implicitly claiming the titles of “woman” and “sister” for themselves, and in so doing, creating a Black feminist space for the other free Black women who engaged with Smith’s album to do the same.


Mia L. Bagneris teaches African diaspora art history and studies of race in Western Art. Concentrating primarily on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and American art and visual culture, much of her scholarship explores the representation of race in the Anglo-American world and the place of images in the histories of slavery, colonialism, empire, and the construction of national identities. Her recently published monograph, Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the art of Agostino Brunias, offers the first comprehensive study of the Brunias’s pictures, made for British plantocrats and colonial elites, which feature Caribbeans of color—so called ‘Red’ and ‘Black’ Carib Indians, dark-skinned Africans and Afro-Creoles, and people of mixed race. Dr. Bagneris’s current book project, Imagining the Oriental South: The Enslaved Mixed-Race Beauty in British Art and Culture, c. 1865-1880, works to understand Britons’ pronounced and continued fascination with the enslaved, mixed-race beauty in art and literature. Dr. Bagneris’s research has also been supported by grants and fellowships from a number of other institutions including the Yale Center for British Art, Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute (now the Hutchins Center), the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.


This event will be held via Zoom. A link will be circulated to registrants by 10 am on the day of the event. This event will be live with automatic captions.