Photo of an artwork installation featuring a mound of dirt on the floor covered in objects surrounded by charcoal drawings of people on large round pieces of wood with a video of water projected on the walls behind them. Photo of an artwork installation featuring a mound of dirt on the floor covered in objects surrounded by charcoal drawings of people on large round pieces of wood with a video of water projected on the walls behind them. Photo of an artwork installation featuring a mound of dirt on the floor covered in objects surrounded by charcoal drawings of people on large round pieces of wood with a video of water projected on the walls behind them.

Whitfield Lovell: Passages

October 27, 2023 – January 14, 2024

Whitfield Lovell: Passages features drawings, assemblages, and installations that focus on African-American history and raise questions about identity, memory, and our country’s heritage.

A 2007 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, Lovell (b. 1959, Bronx, New York) makes drawings inspired by photographs of unidentified African Americans taken between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Civil Right Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

“The importance of home, family, ancestry feeds my work entirely,” Lovell explains. “African Americans were generally not aware of who their ancestors were, since slaves were sold from plantation to plantation and families were split up. Any time I pick up one of these old vintage photographs, I have the feeling that this could be one of my ancestors.”

Executed on paper or salvaged wooden boards, the artist’s drawings are paired with found objects and often incorporated into larger multi-media installations or stand-alone tableaux.

Images courtesy of Jason Masters.

Passages marks the first time Lovell’s major installations Deep River (2013) and Visitation: The Richmond Project (2001) are shown together.

The immersive, multi-sensory installation Deep River details freedom seekers’ journeys across the Tennessee River to Chattanooga’s “Camp Contraband,” which housed African Americans fleeing the South during the Civil War and the Reconstruction. In this room-sized installation, recordings of lapping water accompany floor-to-ceiling video projections of the river. Lovell piles soil into a mound in the middle of the gallery, arranging vintage objects—utensils, pans, lamps, ropes, boots, a Bible, and weapons—on top. Fifty-six foundry molds with hand-drawn depictions of unidentified African Americans surround the soil.

Visitation: The Richmond Project (2001) is a domestic interior displayed in a room built inside the Harriet and Warren Stephens Family Gallery. Lovell uses conte crayon to draw on the wooden walls, basing his compositions on old church picnic photographs. Visitation is inspired by the first major entrepreneurial African American community that settled in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia in the 1860s, specifically Maggie L. Walker, the founder of the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank and the first Black woman to charter and serve as president of an American bank.

Passages includes works on paper and freestanding tableaux from the artist’s Kin series (2008-2011). These drawings depict the faces of anonymous African American subjects paired with objects from everyday life, such as brooches, American flags, or silk flowers. Also on display are drawings from his series Card Pieces (2019- ). A grouping of 54 drawings, each matched with a vintage playing card, touches on the lively tradition of card games as a social activity in the African-American community and hints at themes of chance and destiny. Lovell’s newest series in the exhibition, The Reds, begun in 2021, consists of large-scale conte crayon figure drawings on red paper. With its associations of love, passion, courage, life, and blood, the color red anchors these drawings with rich symbolism.

Photo courtesy of Sandra Paci.

AMFA has a long history with Lovell, having presented his exhibition Whispers from the Walls: The Art of Whitfield Lovell in 2005. The AMFA Foundation Collection features two of his drawings, Dress With Tree (1992) and Coin VII (2002). A drawing from the collection of Jackye and Curtis Finch, Jr., Hand II (1994), will be displayed in the collection galleries during the run of this exhibition.

Located in MacArthur Park, land that was used as an arsenal and military barracks during the Civil War, AMFA also has physical and geographical ties to themes and histories explored in Passages. Lovell’s Deep River installation is grounded in the African-American struggle for freedom during the Civil War and addresses themes of abandonment, death, life, and hope. Battleground, a tableau that is part of Visitation, acknowledges the 153,000 Black soldiers who served in the Union Army.

Lovell invites his viewers to consider the human quest for equality and the pursuit of a better life. Through the combination of installations, sculpture, and works on paper, Passages gives AMFA guests the chance to witness the history and cultural memory of the African-American experience and invites them to consider the physical passage of time, its effect on memory, and the reception of our collective history.

Lovell studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the New York University Graduate Program in Venice. His works are featured in major museum collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC; The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, DC; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA; The Yale University Art Gallery; The Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN; The Brooklyn Museum, NY; The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Seattle Art Museum, WA, and many others.

The Story Project

Inspired by Whitfield's work in Passages, The Story Project invites you to tell your own stories through memory-rich objects.

Whether it is an old family photograph, a piece of jewelry handed down through generations, the recipe of your favorite homemade dessert, or the LP record of your favorite song, AMFA wants you share an image of this item and the memories connected to it.

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Artist Talk: Whitfield Lovell

October 26, 2023, at 6:00 p.m.

Whitfield Lovell's Artist Talk at AMFA marks the only event in the Mid-South where audiences can see Lovell in person during this exhibition’s two-year journey through six cultural institutions across the United States.

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear Lovell – recognized as one of the world’s leading artists interpreting lost African American history – speak retrospectively about the work on view in Passages in context with today’s current culture.


Circle Society Preview

October 26, 2023 / 4:00-6:00 p.m.

AMFA Circle Society Donors and Corporate Partners are invited to enjoy an exclusive first look at Whitfield Lovell: Passages before the Member Preview Party on October 26 and the public exhibition opening on October 27.

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Member Preview

October 26, 2023 / 6:00-9:00 p.m.

AMFA Members and Social Pass holders are invited to explore AMFA’s immersive new exhibition Whitfield Lovell: Passages during an intimate reception before it opens to the public on October 27.

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Whitfield Lovell: Passages is organized by the American Federation of Arts in collaboration with Whitfield Lovell. Major support for the national tour and exhibition catalogue is provided by National Endowment for the Arts and the Terra Foundation for American Art.