On July 4, 2015, I arrived in Washington, D.C., with no specific expectations, but with a clear goal: to build the first chapter of my graphic novel, entitled Harlem Hidden History. As result of being granted a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, I spent one month conducting research in the National Portrait Gallery and in the Victor Building, where the museum has its offices.
Harlem Hidden History is a project that began at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York, using the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement as the background for a story that interlaces fact and fiction. My residency at the Portrait Gallery was crucial in propelling the project into a stronger dimension, fueled by a very nurturing and tremendously receptive working environment.
As soon as I arrived at the museum, I knew that I was in the right place to push my own creative boundaries, plunging into new aesthetic territory that—eventually—would help me create the first chapter of the novel. I was familiar with many of the historical figures related to the Harlem Renaissance and the empowerment of black people; their portraits are some of the National Portrait Gallery’s many treasures. However, my residency at the museum gave me the great opportunity of having a close and intense encounter with the original works of art.
I embraced the National Portrait Gallery not only as a great art repository with a constant flow of visitors, but also as a place in which many people work and have their own, behind-the-scenes social dynamics. I sent an open call inviting staff members and fellows to pose as characters in my novel. Seventeen people volunteered, including curators, art historians, librarians, educators, and security guards.
Once I established the starting point for the plot—paranormal activity at the National Portrait Gallery—the story started to grow by itself as result of predetermined actions and improvisational work in several locations. I established a link between the fictitious elements of the story, historical data, the museum collection, and the museum staff. In the end, my research had a triple nature: academic, anthropological, and artistic.
For one month I transformed the Portrait Gallery into a lab and a set. I was able to stretch the limits of curatorial practice, visual narratives, and art research without ignoring the perspective of an art historian. I tried to blend historical data with the materials resulting from my verbal and photographic interaction at the museum’s offices. I ended up with 4,521 images.
Who would expect that to happen in such a formal and seemingly bureaucratic structure? In past projects, I was fascinated by contracts, paperwork, and agreements. It’s easy for me to deal with formalities. But when the unexpected happens, social structures can be transformed, depending on how they are approached.
During my stay, I was blessed by the constant guidance of Taína Caragol, my sponsor. She quickly understood that I was totally inclined to experiment. We embarked on a journey that she was generous enough to follow without hesitation. I was also very lucky with the support and participation of Sarah Snyder, a dear friend who works at the Museum of American Art.
I left DC with a feeling of tremendous gratitude to everybody who contributed to my research. I also tasted the sour flavor of guilt. On my way back to New York, ecstatic at the results of my fellowship, I suddenly thought “Oh, my God! What I have done? I must have left people exhausted!”
—Paco Cao, Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, 2015