Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)
Title of Song: Lady Africa
Composer: Reed Jr., Dave
Publisher: Howley, Haviland & Dresser
Year & Place: 1897; New York, New York
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-807
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasm.b0807
This is a multi-colored portrait of a slender woman sporting an umbrella, a hat and gloves. The frame only allows the viewer to see three-quarters of her body. Her hat features large, undulating feathers that seem to spring out of the hat like volutes. While the fabric of her sleeves hugs her wrists and forearms, it expands exponentially in a balloon-like fashion from her forearms to her shoulders. The sleeves in this area are unsually large, approximating the width of her entire body. This contrasts with the woman’s collar, which is wrapped tightly around her neck and is tied in a bow just below the nape of her neck with a broad, dark magenta ribbon. It is her right hand that holds the umbrella in balance over her shoulders. The dress is made of a printed fabric comprised of stripes in the sleeves and swirls reminiscent of an arabesque decoration in the bodice. Additionally, the bodice is cinched at the waist and a brooch is pinned to the front of her neck.
This image seems to attempt to reference feminine, middle-class respectability and propriety as evidenced by the body’s lavish decoration and formal attire. The main elements or accoutrements such as the gloves, hat and umbrella are signifiers of a historically specific type of formality. It is difficult to understand if this image takes steps towards caricature or of it it can be understood a serious representation of an individual. This referencing of civil society does not seem completely out of line with what the actual social and stylistic demands of the day might have been. There are few things that are odd such as the lack of visual context or background that would help the reader better identify her. It is also striking that she wears both the hat and the umbrella as one would seem to counter the need for the other. What may be most striking is the formality’s combination with a black body. The title of this piece, “Lady Africa” offers few clues that help in constructing an interpretation. The reference to Africa itself, however, does suggest that what the viewer sees here, a female of African-descent attempting to ascend to “lady-hood” might have been a humorous spectacle for turn of the century viewers, in much the same way that viewing markers of indigenous culture might have been. Still, it seems that there is an inaccessible aspect of this piece, which needs a late-nineteenth century audience to be activated.
Untitled, Missouri State Archives, circa 1890’s
This image from the Missouri State Archive depicts an woman (anonymous) wearing a long dress with lace embroidery.
Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois., and Emily K. Shubert. Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art Phillips Academy, 2006.