“Passing” is a fraught term in the politics of identification. It suggests subjects who have trespassed across social or legal boundaries that distinguish purportedly stable identity groups. “Passing” also presents a unique challenge for the study and writing of African American art history. This is because, throughout the 19th-century, several artists who have become important figures in surveys of African American art are thought to have passed as white at various points in their lives—including Joshua Johnson, Robert S. Duncanson, and Grafton Tyler Brown. This presentation will focus on the landscape artist Grafton Tyler Brown who is lauded as one of the earliest Black artists in California, having arrived in the state in the late 1850s not long after its incorporation into the United States. Brown became prominent as a lithographer, enjoying the patronage of companies such as the Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo. Yet, as art historian Robert Chandler has explored, Brown achieved much of this success while passing as white. Arguably this was a means to not only further his career in 19th-century San Francisco, but also to mediate California’s racial laws which enacted restrictions on all aspects of life including education, marriage, and employment. This presentation will consider passing as a fraught mediation of the shifting borders and legislation of the United States, one that highlights the fissures of identity and belonging in America.
Tobias Wofford is an assistant professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University . His research explores the meeting of globalization and identity in the art of the African Diaspora since the 1950s, as well as concepts of diversity and multiculturalism in art of the United States. To this effect, he has written on the multifaceted role of Africa in contemporary African American art, analyzing how Africa is invoked and interpreted within the context of shifting artistic and political movements in the United States. Wofford teaches courses that explore African American art and visual culture; art of the African Diaspora, and American art. Before joining VCUarts, Wofford was an Assistant professor at Santa Clara University. His research has been supported by fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and the Mellon Postdoctoral Program at Johns Hopkins University. He was also a Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. Wofford received his Ph.D and MA in art history from the University of California, Los Angeles.