(Text by: Mary Sheriff, The Portrait Now and Then, The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.)

Heidi Fancher's For Delia in with the black figure is presented as both seer and apparition. The work responds to the photograph of a slave woman taken in 1850 for naturalist Louis Agassiz, who sought to demonstrate the supposed biological inferiority of black Africans. Rancher’s work is dedicated to the salve called Delia, and it brilliantly rebuts Agassiz’s racist science in a photograph that exploits the choreographic print process for its ability to produce intense, varied blacks and whites.

Fancher’s figure appears to emerge before our eyes: the face and upper body have already separated from the darker ground, while the hair and elbows are not yet in full view.

Our attention is drawn to the eyes, black orbs set off by spots of reflected light and brilliant white surrounds. The stare directs the energies outward and suggests this apparition’s visionary gaze, yet the position of the arms and hands retracts the energy inwards, rendering the figure self contained, within—even protective of some vulnerability—or perhaps of some secret contained within. The striations on the chest suggest that the body has been marked or scarred. Are these ritual scarifications that designate the figure as a seer, or are they remnants of abuse the heritage of enslavement?

Whatever interpretation we give them they are combined with light reflected at precisely the point where the thumbs ask us to look: at the figure’s metaphoric heart. So represented, the thumbs also point toward some interior state, while the placement of the hands approaches, but does not reach that of prayer. The image, moreover, veers toward androgyny, which, when combined with the apparition like presentation , reminds us that androgyny was long associated with different forms of the occult and the mystical.

There is a calculated sense of other worldliness about this portrait in which blackness is not only a skin color but also, and more significantly, a space and a medium in which beauty and spirit can emerge.

This piece was featured in 'To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes' published by Apature Press, 2020.