Cut-out black figures dancing around a large May-pole

Maibaum by Kristi Malakoff / 20 black paper figures, black foam core, hardware, 2009 / Photo by Kristi Malakoff

Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now

May 11, 2018 - March 10, 2019

Silhouettes—cut paper profiles—were a hugely popular and democratic form of portraiture in the 19th century, offering virtually instantaneous likenesses of everyone from presidents to those who were enslaved. The exhibition “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” explores this relatively unstudied art form by examining its rich historical roots and considering its forceful contemporary presence. The show features works from the Portrait Gallery’s extensive collection of silhouettes, such as those by Auguste Edouart, who captured the likenesses of such notable figures as John Quincy Adams and Lydia Maria Child, and at the same time, the exhibition reveals how contemporary artists are reimagining silhouettes in bold and unforgettable ways.

Highlights of the historical objects include a double-silhouette portrait of a same-sex couple and a rarely seen life-size silhouette of a nineteen-year-old enslaved girl, along with the bill of her sale from 1796. The featured contemporary artists are Kara Walker, who makes panoramic silhouettes of plantation life and African American history; Canadian artist Kristi Malakoff, who  cuts paper to make life-size sculptures depicting a children’s Maypole dance; MacArthur-prize-winner Camille Utterback, who will present an interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements; and Kumi Yamashita, who “sculpts” light and shadow with objects to create mixed-media profiles of people who are not there. With both historical and contemporary explorations into the silhouette, Black Out reveals new pathways between our past and present, particularly with regard to how we can reassess notions of race, power, individualism, and even, our digital selves.

This exhibition is curated by Portrait Gallery Curator of Prints, Drawings and Media Arts, Asma Naeem.

  • Silhouette of a 19th century man and woman facing each other

    George Washington Whistler and Lady Whistler Haden / Auguste Edouart (1788 - 1861) / 1842, Ink, chalk and cut paper on paper / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

  • Silhouette of a man painting at an easel

    Thomas Sully / Auguste Edouart (1788 - 1861) / 1843, Ink, chalk and cut paper on paper / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.

  • White just with a silhouette on the surface

    Absalom Jones / Unidentified Artist / c. 1808, Liverpool ware jug / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Sidney Kaplan

  • Letters on a wall lit from the side to form a silhouette

    Profile (new version) / Kumi Yamashita / Wood, single light source, and cast shadow / Kumi Yamashita

  • Violent scenes depicted by silhouettes on a table

    Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching / Kara Walker (born 26 Nov 1969) / 2006, Laser cut steel and paint / Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

  • Children in silhouette dancing around a maypole

    Maibaum / Kristi Malakoff / 2009, paper and foam core / Kristi Malakoff

  • Origami paper silhouettes on a wall

    Origami / Kumi Yamashita / 2017,  Japanese paper, single light source, and cast shadow / Kumi Yamashita

  • Woman standing in front of a colorful digital screen

    Precarious / Camille Utterback / 2018, Interactive installation (depth camera, custom software, computer, projection, lighting) / Camille Utterback

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of:

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An anonymous donor, Andrew Oliver Jr. and Daniel Oliver, Mr. and Mrs. Michael H. Podell, Dr. and Mrs. Paul Carter, The Richard and Elizabeth Dubin Family Foundation, The Forman Family Foundation, Glen and Sakie Fukushima, Stephanie and Timothy Ingrassia, Philip and Elizabeth Ryan, The Abraham and Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows, and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.  Additional support provided by the American Portrait Gala Endowment.