'Dear Sarah' examines race and representation at Detroit's David Klein Gallery

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Photographer Ayana V. Jackson's show "Dear Sarah" is at Detroit's David Klein Gallery through June 15.

In 1850, a young West African girl was presented as a gift to Queen Victoria, who took to the bright, beautiful child, and saw to her education. 

This unlikely tale is the subject Ayana V. Jackson confronts with her photographic exhibition at Detroit's David Klein Gallery, "Dear Sarah." The show is up through June 15. 

Before she was rescued by a British sea captain in 1850, Sarah Forbes Bonetta lost both her parents in a slave-hunting attack on her Yoruba village, and found herself at the tender age of five enslaved in the court of King Ghezo of Dahomey. 

That's where Capt. Frederick E. Forbes convinced the king to let him take the child and give her to Queen Victoria. "She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites," as Frederick wrote in journals published in 1851. 

Jackson, who lives in New York, Paris and Johannesburg, focuses on the history of black bodies as portrayed in art and media. As the biographical page on her website notes, the Spelman College graduate "combines honed technical skills with richly laced historical allusions to create hauntingly candid portraits that depict varying constructions of African and African-American identities."

Jackson literally inhabits her work: "In dealing with the history of black women, she puts herself into her characters," said Christine Schefman, the gallery's director of contemporary art. 

Ayana V. Jackson's photography, in which she's the model, deals with historical representations of black women.

With "Dear Sarah," we get a series of seven striking prints of the photographer herself, all blown up to large size.

In six, Jackson -- who bears considerable resemblance to the historical Bonetta -- is dressed in a period gown of ethereal white. The seventh portrait has her seated and somber, dressed in proper Victorian black and silver. 

The result is a series of magnetic portraits in which Jackson makes herself into a little girl -- in one case, leaping into the air, dress billowing around her black, lace-up boots. 

The actual Bonetta, by the way, married a wealthy Yoruba businessman in 1862, and the couple moved back to Lagos, in what is now Nigeria. There they had a daughter whom they named Victoria. The Queen of England was the child's godmother. 

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Dear Sarah'

Through June 15

David Klein Gallery, 1520 Washington Blvd., Detroit

Noon - 6p.m., Wed. - Sat.

(313) 818-3416