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Tokie Rome-Taylor’s portraits of children include objects that
have special historical or cultural meaning, such as this vessel
decorated with a map of Africa.
To artist Tokie Rome-Taylor, whose photographic portraits contain
multiple layers of symbolic and historical meaning, Black children are
the natural focus for her work to reassert the cultural traditions that
were deliberately erased when Africans were forcibly brought to America.
“Children are the subjects I use to speak of a sense of belonging,”
Rome-Taylor told a virtual University of Delaware audience on Feb. 24,
adding that, if Black children don’t see themselves represented in
positive images, “They will always have this perception that ... they
are ‘the other,’ that they do not belong.”
Rome-Taylor, who grew up in the South and is based in Atlanta, spoke about her work at the Department of History’s
Speaks-Warnock Symposium. Her lecture, “Self-Fashioning and the Black
Portrait Tradition,” was followed by a panel discussion.
“My work is very research-driven,” said Rome-Taylor, who acts not
only as a fine-arts photographer but also as a historian and
ethnographer. She examines the erasure of material, spiritual and
familial cultural artifacts of people of the African Diaspora. Those
artifacts and traditions, she said, were replaced in America by European
ones that objectified Black Americans and forced them into the
In contrast, her photographs center on children of color and are
filled with symbolic images and objects of importance in African
material culture and the history of Black families. The children are
often holding or posed near such objects as mirrors, magnifiers and
cotton. Some are depicted with items that have been passed down through
generations and that have deep personal meaning to their families.
In her talk at UD, Rome-Taylor showed examples of what she called
“layered meanings” in her portraits. She said she often depicts haloes,
an image used in Christianity and many other religions, and feathers,
symbolic of “flight, freedom and the ability to move at will.” One
portrait includes pinecones, which the child’s mother brought to the
photography session to represent the land her family owned at a time
when Black ownership of property was very difficult to achieve.
“I work to create a visual narrative,” Rome-Taylor said. “I use
themes of time/memory, spirituality, identity and material culture.”
She also showed the audience a behind-the-scenes look, through
photos, at how she methodically sets the stage for each portrait by
creating a tableau in which the child will then sit or stand. In asking
families to provide objects that are meaningful to them, she emphasizes
that “heirlooms” are not restricted to expensive objects owned by
“It doesn’t have to be fancy to be part of your family’s history,” she said.
During the panel discussion that followed the lecture, TK Smith, a
curator and a history doctoral student at UD, called Rome-Taylor’s
photography “powerful” and noted how she visually connects Renaissance
painting with the history of the African Diaspora. Because of that, he
said, “The work looks familiar but new.”
Other panelists were moderator Danielle Bing, a graduate student in
history specializing in fashion and self-representation; Julie McGee,
associate professor of Africana studies and art history and director of
the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center; and Curtis Small,
Special Collections/rare books librarian with UD Library, Museums and
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Rome-Taylor’s lecture and the panel discussion during the
Speaks-Warnock Symposium was one of many events held at the University
during Black History Month.
The Speaks-Warnock Lecture Fund was created by Baltimore
philanthropists David Warnock, a UD alumnus with a degree in history,
and Michele Speaks. It is providing more funds for talks, symposia and
other History Department events while also increasing support for
history graduate students.
To learn more about Rome-Taylor, including information about exhibitions of her work and her book, Reclamation, which will be published later this year, visit her studio’s website.
Article by Ann Manser, images courtesy of Tokie Rome-Taylor
Originally published February 28, 2022