The Hampton Project is the product of a curious collaboration.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, who lived from 1864 to 1952, was a white photojournalist and portrait photographer with studios in two cities and an elite clientele that included five presidential administrations and several prestigious architectural firms. In a self-portrait taken around the turn of the last century, she is wrapped to the chin in furs, her square, pale face an edifice of Victorian pride.

Carrie Mae Weems, born one year after Johnston‘s death to a family of transplanted Mississippi sharecroppers, is a black multimedia artist with a graduate degree in photography, a background in folklore and a resolutely political sensibility. In her own self-portrait, drawn from her 1990 Untitled (Kitchen Table Series), Weems wears a black T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves to expose no-nonsense biceps, her head cocked slightly to the right with an expression — true to her own era — of irony.

The only thing that these two women seem to have in common, judging from the portraits, is the bold self-assurance with which they confront the camera. Appearing side by side near the beginning of the exhibition catalog, they come across like two eyewitnesses with conflicting accounts of the same crime — which, in a sense, they are.

Their mutual subject is the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now known as Hampton University), a Hampton, Virginia, school founded in 1868 by Samuel Chapman Armstrong to offer occupational, academic and religious instruction to newly freed slaves and displaced Native Americans. In 1899, Johnston was commissioned by the school to document its work for the “Exhibit of the American Negroes” at the Paris Exhibition of the following year. The photographs were subsequently published as The Hampton Album. Almost exactly a century later, Weems was commissioned by the art museum at Williams College — Armstrong’s alma mater — to produce a contemporary interpretation of Johnston‘s work, which has resulted in an installation of large photographs (printed on canvas and muslin), text, and spoken-word audio. The two sets of work are presented concurrently at Cal State University Long Beach, along with a selection of Johnston portraits drawn from the collection of CSULB’s University Art Museum.

The issues evoked by the memory of the Hampton Institute are complicated and controversial, and it is to the credit of all involved in the current project — Weems in particular — that this complexity is duly conveyed. Like most racial-reform measures initiated by whites in this country, the institute was a well-intentioned but problematic venture. Armstrong was the son of missionaries stationed in what is now Hawaii and approached his own calling — “the welfare of the emancipated Negro” — with a missionary‘s zeal that viewed a strong Protestant work ethic as the surest route to assimilation.

Johnston’s photographs, commissioned in part to buttress the image of the school against the resilient racism of the post-Reconstruction era, present the Hampton students as a vision of industry. Solemn, studious, well-mannered and respectably attired, they plug away at everything from arithmetic to music to bricklaying with unerring resolve. Johnston‘s compositions are static and impeccably balanced, giving an impression of safety and calm that would have stood in stark contrast to the realities of racism and poverty awaiting the students off campus.

There’s no denying the propagandistic nature of the images, which manifests itself in an unsettling emphasis on obedience and conformity. As one art historian quoted in the catalog points out, The Hampton Album served largely “to assure an American audience that free blacks could still be counted on to take their place in the agricultural economy of the South,” and “to reassure an international community that the United States had its ‘Negro problem’ firmly in hand.” Confronting an image like A Class in American History (1899-1900), in which a group of black and Native American students — notably “civilized” in their attire — inspects a Native American man in traditional garb (complete with headdress, peace pipe and moccasins) as though he were an archaeological artifact, one has to wonder whose interests were being served in such a situation, whose values upheld, and at what expense?

Weems, for her part, addresses these questions with critical fortitude, despite the bureaucratic tangle it apparently entailed. (The Hampton University Museum, which provided Weems with a considerable amount of archival assistance, pulled out as a venue for the exhibition over disagreements with her approach, the details of which are judiciously outlined in a catalog essay by the museum‘s director.) Weems’ installation combines several of Johnston‘s images with reproductions of other historical photographs (Hampton-related and not), some of which she overlays with poetic first- and second-person statements. Across a formal portrait of Samuel Armstrong and family, for example, she imposes: “With your missionary might you extended the hand of grace reaching down & snatching me up and out of myself.”

The potency of the work resides in these sorts of discomfiting juxtapositions, which challenge the singular message of The Hampton Album and draw out its less savory details. The images crowd together and overlap in the rather narrow space given over to the work in the current installation, obliging the viewer to think in terms of relationships rather than isolated concepts. A portrait of a masked shaman hangs next to a snapshot of modern-day children wearing paper masks of a similar design; a watering-hole baptism of several dozen Native Americans resides next to an image of black civil-rights protesters being pummeled with the spray from a fire hose. Two recent Hampton yearbook portraits, hung near the images of alums who preceded them by a century or more, remind the viewer that history isn’t a static entity that solidifies with the passing of time but an ever-shifting dynamic — fertilizer for every new experience. Exactly how it fed into the lives of these two beaming graduates is one of the principal questions that Weems asks us to consider.

In the end, of course, Weems has the unfair advantage of time, since Johnston isn‘t around to defend her own position. The other photographs on view with the exhibition — wonderfully spirited portraits of Washington society women, including several enchanting images of Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Lee — suggest that Johnston had a sharp eye for personality and flair among those of her kind; one wonders how differently she might have approached the Hampton students in an era less bound by colonialist ideology. But Weems is also bound by the ideology of her time, as invisible as it may be to contemporary eyes. Who knows what the next appointed artist will make of her project 100 years down the road?

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