The idea of “passing for white” has held historical significance for people of color in America since it emerged as a prominent literary theme during the abolitionist movement, the postbellum era and the Harlem Renaissance. However, the theme of passing remains prevalent in film, literature and art today, and it has expanded to include subversions of class, gender and sexuality. This continued relevance is especially palpable on Vassar’s campus in light of the upcoming Zendaya and Reese Witherspoon-produced film “A White Lie,” which tells the story of Anita Hemmings, the first known African-American woman to graduate from Vassar. The school accepted Hemmings under the impression that she was white, and her forthcoming biopic has renewed campus discussions of passing in its various forms.
In response to “A White Lie” and the 90th anniversary of the publication of Nella Larson’s seminal novel “Passing,” Professor of Film Mia Mask and Associate Professor of English Hiram Perez organized an event series that explores the topic. On Feb. 28, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center opened the exhibit “Quiet as It’s Kept: Passing Subjects, Contested Identities,” which surveys art’s modern and historical engagement with passing through video, photography and paintings. The exhibit is supplemented by three presentations and panel discussions, a keynote address and a film screening and various corresponding conversations, all of which will take place from April 5 to 7.
The art exhibit takes place in the Focus Gallery and the Hoene Hoy Photography Gallery. Curator Mary-Kay Lombino selected multimedia works by seven contemporary artists, as well as two historical examples, to provide varied perspectives on the topic of passing. In an email interview, Perez articulated the purpose of the exhibit: “[It] includes work by established as well as younger artists who are conceptualizing and representing the passing subject in surprising ways or otherwise speaking to related concerns, including how the miscegenous body figures historically in the American imagination.”
Lombino explained her methodology for selecting the featured pieces. “Many of the artists in the exhibition are exploring their own personal identity and their place in the world, often making a statement about what art is, and who can be an artist,” she stated. “So much of the Western canon of art history represents the voices of white, European male artists until, in the second half of the 20th century, when American art began to reflect the struggle for human rights on the part of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.”
The selected works vary in tone, subject and medium. For example, the featured paintings by mixed-race artist Lezey Saar, which are part of her series of works titled “Gender Renaissance,” focus not on her racial identity, but rather gender expression. The two pieces, “Vesta the Johnny” and “The Silent Woman,” are in response to her son’s journey as he transitioned from female to male.
The exhibit also showcases artists who take a satirical approach to passing, such as videographers Adrian Piper and Martine Gutierrez. Piper’s “Funk Lessons” and Gutierrez’s “Clubbing” both depict people dancing, which brings a certain lightheartedness to their pieces while also delivering biting commentary on topics such as cultural appropriation and exclusionism. The exhibition serves as a precursor to the conferences, so that viewers are prepared for weighty conversations. Lombino explained, “[H]aving the show open in advance of the conference allows people to come in before and think through some of the complexities of the topic … Looking at an exhibition is obviously different than listening to someone give a talk, so I think that having a combination of the two will allow us to have a more open, broader conversation.”
The corresponding conferences begin Friday, April 5 at 4:30 p.m. with the panel discussion “Celebrity, Gossip and Passing.” The event will continue on April 6 with the panel discussion “Blood Symbolics: Fantasy and the Racial State” at 11 a.m.; the Keynote Address “Can’t You See I’m White? Reading between the Sight Lines of Racial Difference” at 2:30 p.m.; and film screenings of “Little White Lie” (2014) and “Fuori” (1997) at 4 p.m. The weekend will conclude with the closing conversation “Writing a Life: Remembering Anita Florence Hemmings” on April 7 at 10 a.m.
The speakers include numerous scholars and writers from universities across the country with eclectic specialties. Participants include Assistant Professor of American Culture and Asian and Pacific Islander Studies at the University of Michigan Manan Desai, Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University Ann Morning, Professor of Film and Associate Chair of English at the University of South Carolina Susan Courtney and historical fiction author and Vassar alum Karin Tanabe ’02. The variety of the academics is intended to allow for multidisciplinary, nuanced considerations.
Mask articulated what she believes attendees will learn from the exhibition, discourses and screenings: “I would like them to take away a realization of the fact that identities are constructed. They’re not necessarily real, biological categories,” she stated. “I would also like them to take away the fact that identities are fluid … people at different points of their lives may inhabit one identity category or may choose to pass into another.”
According to Mask, the broad scope of the scholarship and art forms featured gives the event a broad appeal. “I think that learning about the life of Anita Hemmings here at Vassar is instructive for all students,” she asserted. “Whether it’s in the art exhibit, or in the panels and in the conversations that are happening in the panels, or if it’s in the film screenings, which encourage us to think about religion and passing, there’s definitely something for everyone to take away, and we can all benefit by dialoguing with one another about these subjects.”