Hispanic Society’s First Black Curator, Madeleine Haddon, Reframes Art History

NEW YORK – The Hispanic Society Museum and Library in Washington Heights brings some long-hidden works of art to the fore, under the direction of the museum’s first black curator.

In the Our house exhibition, the neighborhood is welcomed as home to the iconic culture institution, which closed for renovations five years ago. This time, guest curator Madeleine Haddon reframes history.

“Stories told through art, and especially through paint, are really pivotal in thinking about how we think about our cultural and racial identity today,” Haddon said.

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Madeleine Haddon, left, and Jessi Mitchell.

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Famous works collected since the museum’s opening in 1904 took a tour to share their impact on the world, but in the vaults, more than 700,000 works lay waiting to be put in the spotlight. One such painting was Young man from the coast by José Augustín Arrieta, which is now the centerpiece of the exhibition.

“It was absolutely important to me that this black guy is the first thing you see when you walk into this show, to counteract so much of that,” Haddon said.

The portrait of the young man overshadows that of Diego Velásquez Portrait of a little girl on his side. This is a conscious and personal mission for Haddon, which began when she began studying art.

“I painted pictures of my family,” Haddon recalled. “There weren’t many black people at my school that I could paint. It was hard to find models.”

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Haddon saw the bigger picture in her first art history class.

“When we think stereotypically about art from this period, people of color aren’t represented, Haddon said. “Doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

A pair of paintings by Miguel Viladrich depicts people of African descent in their home environment in Montevideo, Uruguay in the 1920s.

“Once slavery ended there, the population really flourished,” Haddon explained.

Other displays examine the value of slaves over the value of the silver they mined, with a hand-drawn map of a Peruvian mine in Potosí next to a silver tray from the same era.

“Something akin to genocide isn’t always recognized,” Haddon noted.

To fuel these conversations, Haddon invites other young art lovers of color to follow in her footsteps.

“I hope they come to these kinds of shows and see that this is a home for them,” she said. “This is a place for them. And we really need them.”

The Nuestra Casa exhibition is open to the public until April 17 from Thursday to Sunday. The Hispanic Society is located at West 155th Street and Broadway.

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