That Other Photo Exhibit

IT will be a surprise to some, but the controversial pictures by Robert Mapplethorpe are not the only photographic exhibition to tour America over the past couple of years. Brian Lanker's extraordinary show, ``I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,'' which has just left Boston, is already booked to run through 1995. The exhibition, under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts is at the University of Kansas now and will soon be in St. Louis. The 75 portraits set records at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, and has been to Phoenix, New York, Atlanta, and Detroit as well.

Who are these women? Most of the most celebrated black women in contemporary public life, it would seem, plus a number of people you probably haven't heard of, but would do well to get to know. These are women in politics (Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Maxine Waters), in the arts (Leontyne Price, Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson), in literature (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou), in social services (Clara McBride Hale, who takes care of AIDS babies in Harlem).

Favorites among the less celebrated include Josephine Matthews, a midwife in rural South Carolina who has delivered over a thousand babies safely and who graduated from high school at the age of 74; and the Hudson sisters, Winson and Dovie, of Carthage, Mississippi, who braved the Ku Klux Klan to work for school desegregation and voter registration.

Any number of them are ``first black females''; some are still ``only black females.'' Others are simply sui generis. It is troubling how recent some of these ``firsts'' are; the first black woman to be a neurosurgeon wasn't even born until the middle of the century. But perhaps comfort is to be taken in that that leaves black girls just coming up with worlds yet to dream.

The title of the show is not hype; these women did change America. Constance Baker Motley changed America into a place where a black woman could be a federal judge. Norma Merrick Sklarek turned America into a place where a black woman could be an architect. Rosa Parks helped turn America into a place where black people didn't have to sit at the back of a bus.

And yet if there is something radical about showing all these uppity women, these characters who have labored mightily to turn the status quo on its ear, there is something very conservative, old-fashioned, here too.

This is art with a strong tinge of moral didacticism, of moral uplift. The exhibition is to be read as well as seen: The photos are accompanied by notes on the subjects and their achievements, and some of their own words.

Time was when the world agreed with Carlyle that ``the history of the world is but the biography of great men.'' Young men (it was mostly young men) were enjoined to read works such as ``Plutarch's Lives'' for what we would nowadays call role models. In a similar vein, ``I Dream a World'' introduces the biographies of some great women. These portraits are of a piece with those state portraits of noble characters, with columns and flowing red cloth, that some of us remember from art history class.

Lanker, who is male, as we might guess, and white, as we might not, has written how he came, over his many years as a photojournalist, to appreciate the special contributions of black women to American life, contributions he finally decided might go unrecorded unless he recorded them.

The women he has captured on film have each in her way widened the highway of human achievement. That a white man reached across the gaps of otherness to create and present these images is part of their universality, their inclusiveness.

Alongside the portrait of Angela Davis, the exhibition includes this quotation from her: ``Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women, and black men. And they have had to understand themselves. When black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of this society.''

Amen.

We depart, dreaming.

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