Posted inArts & Culture

Fort Worth artist highlights issue with archives in exhibit featuring enslaved people

Artist Lillian Young, a TCU graduate, poses in front of her The Problem With Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words exhibit, which is on display through July 22 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Young created the project at Michigan State University, where she received her master’s degree, and originally displayed the project across the school’s campus. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Lillian Young spent two years researching wanted runaway slave adverts. She used their descriptions to create portraits of them. What she found was that Black history was not properly archived in history books.

Confirmation of what the enslaved people looked like doesn’t exist, but based on the descriptions, she is “rehumanizing” them, the 27-year-old Young said.

“I realized the descriptions that were provided were very vague, but there is a person here,” Young said. “I thought, ‘Technically, these are the only portraits I have of these people ’cause I don’t know what they look like.’ This is my way of trying to give them back their voice or their personhood, even though they never really had it.”

Young’s exhibition, The Problem With Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words, which is on display at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center through July 22, is split into two separate collections — the Wanted: Runaways collection and The Black Elders Archive. Both highlight the issue with the archiving of Black history.

The Wanted: Runaways collection features 100 drawings on runaway slaves — only 66 are on display in Fort Worth. The Black Elders Archive features 10 paintings of Black leaders like Bob Ray Sanders, Opal Lee and Young’s grandmother, Patricia Brown.

“A Portrait is Worth Our Words focuses on rehumanizing Enslaved Black people whose stories will never be fully known and providing a platform for the ordinary Black elders, who lived through Jim Crow and defacto Segregation, to share their personal experiences of that time,” according to the exhibition’s site.

If there is no description of the enslaved person’s hair, she does not draw hair. Some portraits have distinct beauty marks or scars, and some have as few details as just their skin tone and facial features.

In the bottom corner of each portrait, Young lists the enslaved person’s monetary worth according to the adverts. One portrait Young drew had a reward of $50. The price is adjusted based on inflation and is used to “emancipate” the works of art. She does not believe she should profit from selling the drawings, she said.

A portrait of an enslaved person named Linda is on display at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, where the exhibit is showing through July 22. Artist Lillian Young wanted to highlight the problem with archives with her two-part project The Problem With Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words. Part one features 100 drawings of enslaved people based on descriptions from runaway ads and the second part features Black elders and their experiences during the Jim Crow era and defacto segregation. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

For Young’s grandmother, Brown, 88, the exhibit was necessary for giving the people in the drawings their “personhood.”

“It came at a good time because they’re trying to erase all of the bad stuff that was there and it did exist and if you don’t face it, if you don’t look at it and count on it, and honestly assess it with such an intent, you can’t make any changes,” Brown said. “It’s good for everybody to know what happened because, in my generation, people kept a lot of secrets from us.”

Brown said her generation was not allowed to ask adults questions and what they did learn was from listening in on other adults’ conversations. She said as an only child, she had a better opportunity to listen to adults than most because she had to go everywhere her parents went.

“I was absorbing the information that children don’t always get,” Brown said. “Lillian and I had always talked about how our culture is structured and fractured and everything. She always was interested in a lot of the reading material that I had. She always had access to that. She asked questions I would answer them. She was always very inquisitive.”

Young said the point of drawing the elders was to archive their experiences before they died. She asked each elder a series of seven questions like, “What’s your earliest memory?”

“They all have these amazing stories and context for things we share and have been through. You should ask these questions to these people before they’re gone and you can’t ask them anymore,” Young said. “So that archive is like the call to action of what archives should be doing.”

The art was hard for Young to complete.

“I cry a lot in my studio. And sometimes I’ll just call my friends or my family. One of the ways I work through it is I let those emotions work through me, I don’t just hold it in,” Young said. “But I’ve cried a lot of times in my studio when looking at these things, especially when I’m sleep deprived. Because these are people, and I can’t do anything for them.”

But she separated herself from her artwork by not working on the project at home. She worked on the project in her studio exclusively.

“The key thing, especially with history and one of the aspects of the runaways, I’ve decided I am willingly going to ignore that there is a chance I am drawing my own ancestors,” Young said. “I also don’t purposely make myself or don’t purposely engage in things where I know it’s going to make me sad.”

A portrait of a child sits on display at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Lillian Young, the artist behind the drawing, said she did not draw the undescribed features of the enslaved person. If the runaway slave ad did not describe a person’s hair, they had no hair, Young said. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Out of the 100 drawings, 20 are on display in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and some are in the exhibit’s original display location at Michigan State University, where Young earned her master’s degree.

Young received her bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University in 2018. During her undergraduate career, she traveled with her TCU art professor Adam Fung to Panama and Nicaragua. He taught her Beginning Painting, Advanced Painting and her capstone courses, he said.

“She has always found places to show that intersect with the community and invite discussion,” Fung said. “I would describe her shows as very engaging, thoughtful and rigorous in their production. Lillian has always found a way to show her unique hand in the work that shines through.”

Fung praised Young for her work ethic, calling it “top of the charts.” 

“She constantly was looking for opportunities when she was at TCU and that never stopped. She isn’t fazed by daunting odds and puts herself and her work out into the universe and good things seem to happen because of it,” he said.

Lillian Young, a TCU graduate and artist working in Brooklyn, gives a tour of her exhibit The Problem With Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words on June 5. Young talked about her research process and how the exhibit came to life from her curiosity. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Now, Young works as the family programs coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum introducing children to art, she said. Working with children is a nice break from the heavy art she creates.

Young was introduced to art when she found her mother’s sketchbook and said, “If she can do this, I can do this.”

From then, her career in art took off. She said she hopes to continue to make the drawings for years to come.

Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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