ONE OF THE FIRST AMERICANS to employ photography as a promotional tool, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) copyrighted her image and used it to help fund her “sojourns” as a traveling preacher. She sold cartes de visite bearing her image as souvenirs to those who came to hear her speak about the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, before and after the Civil War. She wore a white shawl in the photographs and her signature accessory is featured in the portrait artist Grace Lynn Haynes made of Truth for the latest issue of The New Yorker.

For her first cover for the magazine, Haynes depicts the 19th century pioneer against a backdrop of yellow patterned wallpaper. Donning a button that reads “1920-2020,” plum and periwinkle striped sleeves, and her signature shawl in a textured mint green, Truth is made contemporary.

 


“Sojourner Truth, Founding Mother,” by Grace Lynne Haynes for The New Yorker, Aug. 3 and Aug. 10, 2020

 

The New Yorker is marking the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, and certified a week later, on Aug. 26, granting women the right to vote, a major victory that excluded Black women.

Asked to create an image commemorating women’s suffrage, Haynes chose to portray Truth, who was born enslaved and died nearly three decades before the 19th Amendment.

“Truth was an early advocate for Black women’s rights who didn’t live to see the fruits of her labor,” Haynes wrote about the cover. “I wanted to point out that while White women gained the right to vote in 1920, it would still take another 45 years—until the Voting Rights Act of 1965—for women of color to be able to cast their ballots.”

Born in California, Haynes is based in New Jersey and recently spent time in Dakar, where she was a member of the inaugural group of artists selected for Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal residency. Her paintings routinely envelop Black women in vibrant color and vivid patterns.

Haynes discussed the August cover with Françoise Mouly, The New Yorker’s art editor, and wrote an essay about the project for CNN. Here is what the artist has said about the life and legacy of Truth, key visual aspects of the portrait, and her approach to depicting Black women:

 

What Sojourner Truth Symbolizes
“I learned about Sojourner Truth as a child, in grade school, and was always inspired by her tenacity, will, and futuristic vision, especially given the circumstances she was born into. I wanted to shed light on her legacy, which reminds women that no matter what has happened in their lives, they can still have a powerful impact on society,” Haynes told Mouly of The New Yorker.

Modern and Playful With Hummingbirds
“My portrait of Truth is based off of existing black-and-white photos of her, but I interpreted them in a playful, modern way,” Haynes wrote for CNN. “She wears the shawl and cap she was often pictured in, but in vibrant colors and textiles of my own imagination. She sits at a table next to a lively plant rising upwards from a vase while hummingbirds flit around her. I often include hummingbirds in my paintings as a tribute to my grandmother, who grew up in the South and dealt with racism and sexism as a Black woman.”

Many People Said “They Didn’t Know Who Truth Was”
“I wanted to represent Truth’s life but to also make the portrait contemporary,” she wrote. “I only had about two days to complete the painting, so I wasn’t really thinking about how it would be received. But as soon as the issue was published, people began sending me messages from all over the world, saying how it touched them or how they didn’t know who Truth was. Schools don’t teach about her enough.”

“I learned about Sojourner Truth as a child, in grade school, and was always inspired by her tenacity, will, and futuristic vision, especially given the circumstances she was born into. I wanted to shed light on her legacy…” — Grace Lynne Haynes

Using “Pitch Black” Skin Color
“In my own artwork, I explore what it means to be a Black woman in 2020. I mix painting and collage to create colorful, patterned and embellished interior scenes populated by women who are depicted with pitch black skin color. Each figure has a different set of eyes, cut from the pages of magazines,” Haynes wrote.

“When I was an undergraduate student my style developed out of necessity. We drew and painted from live models, but they were all White. When I chose to focus on Black womanhood for my thesis, I realized I didn’t know how to paint the deep complexities of melanated skin. Once I started painting flat, dark figures, I surrounded them with bright colors.”

Gaining International Perspective
“Kehinde Wiley’s residency has introduced my work to the art world in a profound way,” she told Mouly. “The residency also challenged my perspective by placing me in a creative experience outside the Western Hemisphere. I think it’s essential, as an artist, to create new experiences, and to step outside of your comfort zone.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Grace Lynne Haynes on her website

READ MORE about what Grace Lynne Haynes said to The New Yorker about the cover and wrote about it for CNN

 


Artist Grace Lynn Haynes talks about why her figures have black skin and the inspiration behind her Sojourner Truth cover for The New Yorker. | Video by The New Yorker

 

BOOKSTORE
Artist and scholar Nell Irvin Painter wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth. The volume, “Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol,” was first published in 1996. A few children’s books have explored the life and legacy of the abolitionist and women’s rights activist, including “My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth,” “Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride,” and “Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth.” Also consider, “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom” by Keisha N. Blain.

 

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