Collection Highlights: African American Artists
Joshua Johnson is America’s earliest-known professional African American artist. Few details of his life are known. The son of an enslaved black woman and a white man, Johnson was born into slavery around 1763. A Baltimore County record from 1782 lists Johnson as an apprentice to a local blacksmith and states that he was to be freed within two years. In 1798 and 1802, Johnson advertised his painting practice in local newspapers, describing himself as a “self-taught genius.” Some scholars have suggested that Johnson was influenced by the Peale family of painters in Baltimore, particularly Charles Peale Polk. Beginning in the late 1700s, Johnson began to receive portrait commissions from prominent Baltimore-area families, including the Westwood family depicted here. More than 80 portraits have now been attributed to Johnson.
In this painting, the three Westwood brothers have just come inside with freshly gathered flowers and cherries. Accompanying them is the family dog, who firmly grasps a bird captured on their outdoor excursion. The brothers wear matching trouser suits, fashionable for male children at the time. The younger children, Henry and George, clasp hands, while their older brother, John, extends a protective arm behind them. Johnson's sympathetic pose of the three boys makes their brotherly relationship the subject of this portrait.
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African American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson was widely recognized during his lifetime for pastoral landscapes of American, Canadian, and European scenery. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to focus on a small group of still-life paintings (fewer than a dozen are known) that Duncanson produced during the late 1840s. Spare, elegant, and meticulously painted, these works reflect the tradition of American still-life painting initiated by Charles Willson Peale and his gifted children—particularly Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale.
Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, signed and dated 1848, is a classically composed work with fruit arranged in a tabletop pyramid. The painting includes remarkable passages juxtaposing the smooth surfaces of beautifully rendered apples with the textured shells of scattered nuts.
The artist's turn from still-life subjects to the landscapes for which he is better known may have been inspired by Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life; Cole's series was exhibited in Cincinnati, where Duncanson lived in 1848. Duncanson soon began painting landscapes that incorporated signature elements from Cole and often conveyed moral messages. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Duncanson traveled to Canada, where he remained until departing for Europe in 1865. Often described as the first African American artist to achieve an international reputation, Duncanson enjoyed considerable success exhibiting his landscapes abroad.
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Painted 11 years after Henry Ossawa Tanner first settled in Paris in 1891, this rapidly executed plein-air oil sketch is one of the artist’s rare depictions of the French capital. His vantage point is from the right bank of the Seine looking west toward the towers of the Palais du Trocadéro, the exhibition hall built for the 1878 World’s Fair. A diffuse, hazy light fills the scene, which is free of human activity save for a solitary figure dressed in black at the lower right. With short, loose brushstrokes laden with paint, Tanner captured the scattered reflections of light across both river and sky. This small, evocative painting possesses the mood and mystery that are characteristic of the artist’s better-known religious subjects.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins. Although Tanner achieved some success as a painter in the United States, he left for Europe as a young man to escape racial prejudice. Tanner spent most of his professional career in France, where he exhibited paintings at the Paris Salon and in expositions.
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Into Bondage is a powerful depiction of enslaved Africans bound for the Americas. Shackled figures with their heads hung low walk solemnly toward slave ships on the horizon. In a gesture of despair, a lone woman at left raises her bound hands, guiding the viewer's eye to the ships. Yet even in this grave image of oppression, there is hope. Concentric circles—a motif frequently employed by Aaron Douglas to suggest sound, particularly African and African American song—radiate from a point on the horizon. The male figure in the center pauses on the slave block, his face turned toward a beam of light emanating from a lone star in the softly colored sky, possibly suggesting the North Star. The man's silhouette breaches the horizon line in a sign of strength and hope.
In 1936, Douglas was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Installed in the elegant entrance lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, his four completed paintings charted the journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Considered a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural phenomenon that promoted African and African American culture as a source of pride and inspiration, Douglas was an inspiring choice for the project.
The Hall of Negro Life, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, was visited by more than 400,000 fairgoers over the course of the five months that the exposition was open to the public. This commemoration of abolition, and the mural cycle in particular, served as a critical acknowledgment of African American contributions to state and federal progress. Unfortunately, of the four original paintings, only two—Into Bondage and Aspiration (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)—remain.
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In 1927 James Weldon Johnson, a key figure in what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, published his masterwork, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Inspired by African American preachers whose eloquent orations he viewed as an art form, Johnson sought to translate into verse not only the biblical parables that served as the subjects of the sermons, but also the passion with which they were delivered—the cadence and rhythm of the inspirational language. Identifying black preachers as God's instruments on earth, or "God's trombones," Johnson celebrated a key element of traditional black culture. Years before the publication of his poems, while traveling through the Midwest as a field organizer for the NAACP, Johnson witnessed a gifted black preacher rouse a congregation drifting toward sleep. Summoning his oratorical powers, the preacher abandoned his prepared text, stepped down from the pulpit, and delivered—indeed, performed—an impassioned sermon. Impressed by what he had seen, Johnson made notes on the spot, but he did not translate the experience into sermon-poems until several years later. Upon publication, God's Trombones attracted considerable attention—not only for Johnson's verse, but also for the astonishing illustrations that accompanied the poems. Created by Aaron Douglas, a young African American artist who had recently settled in Harlem, the images were an early manifestation of a compositional style that would later become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Drawn by the cultural excitement stirring in Harlem during the mid-1920s, Douglas arrived in New York in 1925. He soon became a student of Winold Reiss, a German-born artist and illustrator and early proponent of European modernism in America. It was Reiss who encouraged Douglas to study African art as well as the compositional and tonal innovations of the European modernists. Before long, illustrations by Douglas began appearing in The Crisis, the NAACP publication edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life, published by the National Urban League. Impressed by these illustrations, James Weldon Johnson asked Douglas to illustrate his forthcoming book of poems, God's Trombones. On short deadline, Douglas created eight bold and unmistakably modern images that clearly reflect the influence of Reiss as well as the artist's close study of African art.
Several years after the publication of God's Trombones, Douglas began translating the eight illustrations he had created to accompany Johnson's poems into large oil paintings. The Judgment Day, the final painting in the series of eight, was the first work by Douglas to enter the Gallery's collection. At the center of the composition a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea. With a trumpet call, the archangel summons the nations of the earth to judgment.
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Horace Pippin turned to art after serving in World War I in the African American regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Pippin was shot by a sniper and lost full use of his right arm, receiving an honorable discharge from the military. He returned to his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, and taught himself to paint using his left arm to support his injured arm. By the late 1930s his work had attracted the interest of such notables as the artist N. C. Wyeth, critic Christian Brinton, and collector Albert Barnes.
This painting belongs to a series of semi-autobiographical domestic interiors that Pippin painted from 1941 until his death in 1946, the best known among them being Domino Players (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC). Most of these scenes represent members of African American families pursuing a variety of activities in a single multipurpose room. The paintings all have the same quiet, peaceful ambience and feature many of the same common household items, such as rag rugs, quilts, a stove, and an alarm clock. What distinguishes School Studies and gives added significance to the work’s title is the way the three figures, instead of interacting, have turned their backs to each other and seem lost in their own inner worlds.
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This work is known by two titles: Mother and Awaiting His Return. The woman who dominates the composition stares into space, her strongly modeled figure a study in patience. Given the work's date (1945), the framed star in the background (a symbol of the US military), and the word mother inscribed in the lithograph's lower left corner, the two titles make equal sense. The woman's face is easily interpreted as that of a mother waiting for a loved one to return from service in World War II. Artist Charles White has chiseled her facial features with determination while infusing her expression with sadness. The cubist faceting of her figure imparts a feeling of solidity and strength in her that is reinforced by her imposing size and foreground placement. Her hands and face are nearly architectural, with their sharp edges and straight-line markings of light and shadow. Yet her tired eyes, her chin set into the palm of her hand, and the merest hint of doubt in her expression signal concern.
In 1942 White, primarily known as a painter of historical murals, shifted his focus to portraits of everyday African Americans on the advice of Harry Sternberg, an instructor at the Art Students League, New York. White's portraits, including Mother, depict anonymous people dealing with situations common to the black experience. The meticulous draftsman used his skill to render human emotion and endurance in the face of such obstacles as discrimination. His works from the 1950s, the decade when the civil rights struggle exploded in the United States, show the cost of such perseverance in images of black men and women fighting for social justice.
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Bob Thompson's Tree is based on the fantastical, morally charged work of Francisco de Goya, the Spanish master known for his scathing commentary on the Spanish royalty and religious persecution in the late 18th century. Thompson's painting combines two consecutive plates from Goya's 1799 collection of etchings Los caprichos: Volaverunt (They Have Flown) on the left and Quien lo creyera! (Who Would Have Thought It!) on the right. Instead of merely re-creating Goya's etchings, however, Thompson produced a different narrative by modifying the characters and adding new elements. Goya's adulteress becomes a redheaded, winged angel holding an uprooted tree. Her human form watches over several bestial figures, suggesting that human reason presides over primal instincts. To unify Goya's two images, Thompson incorporated the color red throughout the work and positioned the tree on a diagonal.
Thompson attended the University of Louisville in Kentucky before moving to New York City in 1959. In New York he studied the old masters at the city's museums and became friends with luminaries such as jazz musician Ornette Coleman and multimedia artist Red Grooms. Thompson traveled to Europe on a fellowship, painting Tree in Paris. Like Tree, many of his paintings are renditions of old master compositions. Sadly, Thompson died in Rome of complications after gallbladder surgery at the age of 29, cutting short his promising career.
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In Street to Mbari, Jacob Lawrence captured the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria. Shops line either side of the street while a maze of vendors awaiting discovery fills the distance. The viewer becomes part of the scene amid a crowd of people, young and old, buying and selling. One can almost hear babies crying, chickens squawking, and people chattering as they discuss fabrics and produce. A cacophony of primary colors heightens the sense of commotion. Rolls of fabric show off different patterns and color combinations. Strips of corrugated iron in varying sizes and colors form the shops' roofs and create a visual rhythm across the top of the painting.
Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria on an invitation to exhibit his work. In describing the trip, he said, "I became so excited then by all the new visual forms I found in Nigeria—unusual color combinations, textures, shapes, and the dramatic effect of light—that I felt an overwhelming desire to come back as soon as possible to steep myself in Nigerian culture so that my paintings, if I'm fortunate, might show the influence of the great African artistic tradition." It was during a second trip there that Lawrence completed Street to Mbari.
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Daybreak - A Time to Rest is one in a series of panel paintings that tell the story of Harriet Tubman, the famed African American woman who freed enslaved people using a fragile network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. This abstracted image emphasizes Tubman's bravery in the face of constant danger. Lying on the hard ground beside a couple and their baby, she holds a rifle. Her face, pointing upward to the sky, occupies the near center of the canvas, her body surrounded by purple. Tubman's enormous feet, grossly out of proportion, become the focal point of the work. The lines delineating her toes and muscles look like carvings in a rock, as if to emphasize the arduous journeys she has made. Reeds in the foreground frame the prone runaways. Three insects (a walking stick, a beetle, and an ant) are signs of activity at daybreak.
Jacob Lawrence is renowned for his narrative painting series that chronicles the experiences of African Americans, which he created during a career of more than six decades. Using geometric shapes and bold colors on flattened picture planes to express his emotions, he fleshed out the lives of Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and African Americans migrating north from the rural south during and after slavery. Lawrence was 12 in 1929 when his family settled in Harlem, New York, at a time when African American intellectual and artistic life was flourishing there. As a teen, he took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop and Harlem Community Art Center, where he studied works of art by African American artists and learned about African art and history. Lawrence went on to create images that are major expressions of the history and experience of African Americans.
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The title of this collage could refer to several of its details. In the top right quadrant a nearly camouflaged passing train with billowing smoke travels to an unknown location. The central figure, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, appears lost in thought. A woman stares at the viewer with a disproportionately large eye, her hand on the windowsill. In the "background" (at right), blue birds fly. These elements and others recall Romare Bearden's childhood in rural North Carolina and personify journeying, a central theme in African American history. The train suggests the Underground Railroad—the network of abolitionist-run safe houses that secretly transported people escaping enslavement—and the post-slavery migration of African Americans, primarily northward, to seek better lives.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and raised primarily in the surrounding Mecklenburg County, Bearden eventually settled in New York City to finish college at New York University. He was a social worker there for several decades, during which time he spent nights and weekends on his art. Originally an abstract painter, Bearden began creating collages in the early 1960s using images from photo-magazines such as Life and Ebony. In addition to his unflinching, faceted images of black life, Bearden is remembered for his published books on art and aesthetics and for his political energy on behalf of black culture.
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Sam Gilliam's draped paintings such as Relative pushed the notion of what painting was and could be. By moving his canvases off their stretcher bars, Gilliam allowed them to shift and flow as fabric is meant to do. The folds in the canvases, however, were not created at random but instead reflect Gilliam's specific idea about how he wanted his paintings to be installed. Relative, while still hung on a wall, becomes a part of its setting and interacts with and within that space. Lighting in the room affects the way shadows from the canvas fall on the wall. Physical movement around the painting can cause the fabric to stir, altering our perception of it. The ample folds demonstrate the painting's flexible properties, highlighting nuances of stained colors and hinting at what the creases conceal. Viewers can indulge in the continuous play between action and stillness, bright color and dark shadow.
Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Alma Thomas, he settled in Washington, DC, and taught art in the public schools. Also like Thomas, he was a member of the Washington Color School and the larger color field movement. Gilliam's experimentations with color and abstraction resulted from an interest in moving away from figurative imagery to adopt color as the main subject of his paintings.
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Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris offers a tripled image, its single subject captured as if in a time lapse. Whether with eyes closed meditatively (on the left) or gazing into space (on the right), Sir Charles is alternately thoughtful and vigilant. Larger than life-size, this imposing figure clearly signals 1970s fashion, pop culture, and the assertion of black identity in the generation following the civil rights era. Barkley Hendricks cast his friends, lovers, family members, and men and women he met on the street as portrait subjects. Stark and monumental against a monochromatic ground, his portraits fix acutely on the individuality and self-expression of his subjects.
Hendricks said that a painting he saw in 1966 while visiting the National Gallery in London—a portrait by Flemish master Anthony van Dyck featuring a red velvet coat—was a point of departure for this work. Intending to make a replica of the Van Dyck image, Hendricks received permission to paint as a copyist in the museum. But once in the process, he realized he could not copy another artist's work, "no matter how much I like it," he said. Years later, he painted Sir Charles with Van Dyck's red coat in mind. Other writers have likened Sir Charles to the iconic three graces—artistic muses (usually female) as portrayed by European old masters such as Botticelli and Rubens in three different attitudes, one usually with her back toward the viewer. It might be said that Hendricks's artistic muses relate to classical Western art history as well as sources personal to the artist.
Hendricks, who was born in Philadelphia, studied there at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and earned BFA and MFA degrees from Yale University. He taught at Connecticut College. The recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, he exhibited his work at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum at Connecticut College; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University organized a career retrospective of Hendricks's work, Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool.
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The unevenly spaced, staccato brushstrokes on the white canvas form a visual rhythm, as if the artist had painted a cantata, a type of musical composition. Tremendous delicacy is shown in the play of space and color, with the white "background" as important to the overall effect as the red bursts of color. The harmonic color field is no accident; the compositional and color structure of Red Rose Cantata derives from Alma Thomas's interest in nature and music, in its linear organization with organic variations.
Thomas came into the professional art world late in life, after teaching art for 35 years in the Washington, DC, public schools. Her age, however, did not prevent her from gaining recognition as an artist. In 1972, one year before she painted Red Rose Cantata, Thomas had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—the museum's first solo exhibition for an African American woman. Thomas and Sam Gilliam were the only two African American members of the Washington Color School. She and other artists, Gilliam among them, are associated with the larger color field movement, which probed the use of solid color in abstract paintings. Thomas continued painting in her signature style, drawing on nature and music for inspiration, until her death in 1978 at age 86.
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Untitled, #20 is a collage both intricate and seemingly precarious in its construction. Hundreds of small circular pieces, remnants from a hole-puncher, cover the surface of the paper. Some lie flat while others cluster in piles or hang off the edges. A grid created by monofilament provides a substructure for the outwardly haphazard composition, and a light coating of powder imparts an iridescent quality. Although numbered, each piece is randomly placed. The use of numbers and a grid suggests a mathematical and perhaps methodical approach to balancing randomness and premeditation.
Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. She received her BFA from Boston University and her MFA from Yale University. Throughout her career, Pindell has used a variety of techniques and materials in her art, including fabric and video. Like Untitled, #20, her other work explores structure and texture in the process of making art.
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The woman in African Nude, wearing only a large necklace, reclines on an overstuffed settee. Her alluring position is similar to the pose found in classic images of odalisques—enslaved women in the Ottoman Empire whose identities became sexualized and popularized during the 19th century. Yet unlike the seductive odalisque seen in Western art, whose gaze challenges by staring directly at the viewer, the nude in Wells's work, with eyes downcast, appears unhappily submissive and ill at ease amid the oversize lush plants and gala colors of the background. The viewer is thus left unsettled, as if unwelcome despite the outwardly inviting scene.
James Lesesne Wells was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1902 and received BS and MS degrees from Columbia University. He had a long career in printmaking, first participating in the Federal Art Project, which encouraged the development of art in the United States during the Great Depression, and then teaching at Howard University in Washington, DC, for almost four decades. Wells was active in the civil rights movement and often depicted the struggles of African Americans in his work. African Nude, which Wells created late in life, reflects his printmaking skill, interest in traditional African aesthetics, and commitment to representing African American history and experiences.
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In the sweeping silhouette of Lever No. 3, a viewer might see either a long-necked animal or a mechanical arm, as suggested by the work's title. While Martin Puryear's sculptures often recall familiar forms, they encourage individual interpretations. This work explores a delicate balance between the heavy, solid-looking "body" and the elegant, weightless reach of the giraffe-like "neck." The play between opposing values—heavy and light, animal and mechanical, space and form, movement and stasis—imbues the sculpture with a sense of animation, vitality, and changeability.
While the central form of Lever No. 3 appears to be sculpted from a heavy block of wood, it is actually a hollow shell, carefully constructed of thin, bent planks of wood. The sculpture is stained light gray, which unifies its appearance but also creates a somewhat uneven patina that emphasizes its hand-crafted quality. Like Lever No. 3, Puryear's sculptural objects often blend qualities of fine art and finely crafted utilitarian objects.
Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. After earning his BA there from Catholic University, he joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where he had the chance to study woodworking techniques such as basketry and carpentry. Puryear then attended the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and independently continued his studies in woodworking. He received an MFA in sculpture from Yale University. In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized a 30-year retrospective exhibition of his work.
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In Untitled (Two Necklines), identical photographs of an unidentified African American woman, shown from mouth to breastbone, hang in circular frames, between them a list of words engraved on plaques. The double image suggests tranquility and composure: the woman's white shift is clean and simple, her mouth at ease, the curve of her breastbone elegantly arced. But the plaques feature words describing circularity and enclosure that are ominously electrified by text on the final plaque, which reads, "feel the ground sliding from under you."
Such meticulous alignments of words and image fuel the subtle yet startling power of Lorna Simpson's work, which for more than two decades has probed the spectral issues of race, sex, and class. Like this one, her images are often truncated, replicated, and annotated with words that force the viewer to interpret. Here, the framed photographs and words inscribed on plaques are literally and metaphorically black and white; the background of the final plaque is a haunting blood red. One is hard pressed to deny the implications of this personal yet dehumanized image and its attendant language of racial pathology.
Simpson's interest in the relationship between text and images began during her career as a documentary photographer. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York and her MFA from the University of California, San Diego. She is recognized as one of America's ranking masters of potent, poetic work in photography and film. Her works signal what is most personal about identity while simultaneously touching upon clichés and assumptions that can disfigure or destroy it.
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The densely layered image of Slum Gardens No. 3 signals claustrophobia. A large tree with a thick, spiked vine winding its way up the trunk defines the right side of the work. Weeds and flowers blanket the bottom half of the image, almost obscuring the wooden shack (left) and the staircase. Plants invade a picket fence and piece of railing in the lower foreground. We sense that the vegetation will soon overtake the entire area, turning the "garden" into a neighborhood menace. The muscularity of the work, emboldened by thick, heavy lines of black charcoal, contributes to the intimidating quality of the plant life.
Joseph Norman frequently uses landscape imagery to convey meaning. For this work he drew on his experiences growing up in Chicago and on a 1990 trip to Costa Rica, where he witnessed the effects of poverty on various neighborhoods. Slum Gardens No. 3 is not a view of a specific place; rather, it visualizes the concept of "slums" from regions around the world. Here, the overgrowing landscape serves as a metaphor for the lack of attention paid to impoverished neighborhoods. Not only are the physical environments of such areas neglected, but, as Norman's drawing suggests, its social and economic problems are ignored as well.
Norman was born in Chicago in 1957. He received a BS in art education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1980 and an MFA six years later from the University of Cincinnati. After teaching drawing for nine years at the Rhode Island School of Design, he took a professorship at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in 2001.
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The imprints of six steam irons mark this work on paper. Beneath each silhouette, in large capital letters, is the name of an iron manufacturer—Casco, General Mills, Monarch, Silex, Presto, with one "unknown." What do we make of this image, framed in an old window?
For the past 20 years Willie Cole has selected and transformed particular items discarded from our vast consumer culture, such as irons, shoes, and lawn jockeys, into objects that resonate with metaphorical meaning—particularly cross-referencing African cultural history and the African Diaspora. The iron silhouettes in Domestic ID, V call up the slave era in America, when African women served as forced domestic laborers, and the period after emancipation, when they took in laundry as one of the few lines of work open to them. The irons' singed imprints also evoke the rituals of scarification, practiced within certain African and other cultures, and branding, which expunged identity to mark humans as slave property—perhaps reinforced by the iron marked "unknown." Other references inhabit this powerful image, such as the similarity of the iron's shape to boats that plied the slave trade across Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and the near-whiff of heat and steam that seems to evoke the hot, backbreaking work of plantation life.
Mounting his image in a window, Cole literally reframes history in a way that summons the readymade art of surrealist and Dada artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Such wry yet serious correspondences of history, art, and racial politics anchor Cole's reputation in the art world. Educated at Boston University School of Fine Arts, the School of Visual Arts (where he received a BFA), and the Art Students League, Cole has exhibited his work throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
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African American artists working in the 1980s and 1990s often focused on black identity as culturally and socially constructed. Artists including Glenn Ligon moved from using the black figure to employing text as a way to explore perceptions and understandings of race. In Untitled: Four Etchings [A–D], Ligon quoted from Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928) and Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952). Selections from both literary works are written in the first person, often repeating the word "I." In the process of deciphering the text, the viewer becomes the "I" and thus inhabits the person questioning their own self and identity.
Untitled: Four Etchings [A] (above) and [B] repeat, over and over, sentences from Hurston's essay: "I do not always feel colored" [A] and "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background" [B]. As the viewer reads, the texts become increasingly difficult to decipher. Smudged and broken type interferes with legibility, suggesting the viewer's literal and intellectual struggle to read the sentence and understand its implications.
Etchings [C] and [D], both black type on black paper, also make the reader work to comprehend the meaning. Their nearly identical texts taken from Ellison's monumental novel are almost indiscernible—"invisible" like the story's protagonist.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side-shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only themselves, or figments of their imagina-
Text [D] is the same, except that it ends:
...figments of their imagination—indeed everything
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Artistically speaking, those with power are usually those who assign a subject's identity. And once such identity has been given, it accumulates historical authority as years, decades, and centuries ensue. Central to this phenomenon is the role of gaze—the idea that viewers have the power to define what they see. In the art of our times, however, the authority of gaze has been tested and upended. Here, Lorna Simpson weighs in.
The artist presents two binoculars and, between them, a series of phrases. You might pick up one of these looking devices—perhaps to spy?—and thus see what the text haltingly, disjointedly describes. But Simpson has placed the binoculars face down, simultaneously promising and frustrating vision. Text and binoculars each furnish only partial knowledge, underscoring the inherent problem of relying on only written or visual information to understand a person or situation. Simpson has examined the relationship between text and image over many years, challenging concepts of truth, history, and identity. Here, gaze is thwarted by its instruments, and knowledge is crippled by incompleteness. You may assign meaning to this image, but Simpson reminds the viewer: it is not necessarily correct.
can see the moisture of her breath while she sings—an interior wall blocks the view of the other—can see the badge #'s—full moon perfect light—undressed completely and got into the tub to his left—motionless—kept a log of observations—curvaceous—went unnoticed by the naked eye—tried to hold in view—just shadows—near sighted—gruesome—remembered everything—right in the line of vision—they moved three steps back and out of view
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In Walker's cut-paper silhouettes, troubling narratives of violence, lust, and exoticism play out. Her work draws upon imagery common in the antebellum South and is controversial for its use of racial stereotypes of both blacks and whites. Walker focuses on the role of stereotypes in shaping history and their complex function in American race relations today. The abbreviation "Inc." in the work's title alludes to the institutionalization of racism and the implicit cultural approval of such degrading images. By suggesting narratives that complicate distinctions between fact and fantasy, victim and predator, black and white, Walker's work confronts the viewer with the uncomfortable challenge of self-reflection.
Born in Stockton, California, in 1969, Walker moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at age 13. Her transition from an integrated town to the racially divided atmosphere of the South had a profound impact on her. She received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, having begun her exploration of the silhouette while in school. At age 27, Walker received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award. Her first retrospective exhibition was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2007.
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On August 28, 1963, photographer Roy DeCarava was present for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In this striking photograph, DeCarava turned away from common displays of political demonstration—placards and crowds—to capture the confidence, interiority, and stoicism of an isolated marcher. DeCarava described this powerful portrait, with its subtle gradations of gray and black, as representing “a beautiful black woman who was beautiful in her blackness. . . . I wanted to pay homage to that person, that spirit.”
Celebrated as one of the first African American photographers to embrace and explore the black experience in his art, DeCarava spent much of his career chronicling daily life in Harlem, the civil rights movement, and jazz musicians. His overarching goal, however, was not documentary realism but rather “creative expression,” as he explained, “the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” No matter the subject, DeCarava’s photographs reveal a keen interest in exploring the symbolic significance of blackness, as can be seen in his evocative, highly acclaimed book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), a fictional story of life in Harlem with text by Langston Hughes.
DeCarava’s influence extended far beyond his own photographs. In 1955 he founded A Photographers’ Gallery, one of few commercial spaces in New York where photographers—including such emerging artists as Harry Callahan and Minor White—could exhibit their work.
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May Flowers, a compelling photograph of three young African American girls, succinctly addresses the issues of race, class, and gender that the American artist Carrie Mae Weems has explored for decades. Related to a video Weems made in 2002 titled May Days Long Forgotten, the photograph evokes both spring’s renewal and May Day, the international workers’ holiday. Befitting these themes, May Flowers depicts girls from working-class families in Syracuse, New York, wearing floral-print dresses. Its tondo format, truncated foreground space, and tight focus on the figures harks back to Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child, while its subject—adolescent girls with flowers in their hair, lounging on the grass—recalls both 19th-century paintings and photographs, such as those by Édouard Manet and Julia Margaret Cameron. Weems intensified this historical character by printing the photograph in sepia tones and placing it in a circular frame like those gracing the walls of 19th-century parlors.
Yet the color of the girls’ skin belies such a history, even as their beauty and knowing expressions—especially the authoritative look of the central figure—challenge viewers to question why they have been excluded for so long. Further complicating and enriching the work, Weems glazed it with a piece of convex glass of the type commonly used in 18th- and 19th-century mirrors, as if to suggest that the image represents a reflection of the world at large.
Weems received her MFA from the University of California, San Diego, and has been honored with numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013.
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A rich and complex religious practice is displayed in the Washington, DC, home of Ella Watson, a cleaning woman who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during World War II. Her altar—composed of statues of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Joseph, St. Martin de Porres, St. Anthony, and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, as well as two elephants, two crucifixes, candles, and a rosary—intermingles with her everyday life reflected in the mirror. Appearing in the reflection is a child’s doll propped against stacked boxes, while Watson herself wears a floral apron over her polka-dot dress. Through her open window, a Coca-Cola delivery truck and lush summer foliage are visible at the intersection of 11th and P Streets, in northwest Washington. Over the course of a month, the photographer Gordon Parks created a series of about 90 pictures of Watson, including his most iconic photograph, Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (American Gothic), in which he posed her with a broom and a mop before an American flag. Made under the auspices of the Historical Section of the FSA, which was headed by Parks’s mentor Roy Stryker, the series was not published by the government at the time.
Parks purchased his first camera in late 1937 while working as a waiter for the Northern Pacific Railway. By the early 1940s he was immersed in some of the most important artistic circles and dynamic photographic projects of his generation. From his rural roots in Kansas, where poverty and racism were widespread, to his meteoric success as a photographer for Life magazine and a filmmaker in Hollywood, Parks was both an instigator and witness of social and aesthetic change during his storied career.
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Standing side by side amid elements of middle-class comfort and in front of an elaborately painted backdrop, the subjects of James Van Der Zee’s Couple exude poise and sophistication. Their elegant dress, direct gazes, and tender yet assured body language demonstrate confidence and security in their place in society. Created at the height of the Harlem Renaissance (1919–1929), this photograph exemplifies the spirit of an artistic, literary, and social movement that sought to assert black creativity and self-determination in the aftermath of World War I and the first wave of the Great Migration north.
Van Der Zee opened his first independent photography studio in 1916. He later established his GGG Photo Studio, which was named for his wife Gaynella, who assisted with the subtle poses, polished styling, and selective placement of studio props that imbued Van Der Zee’s portraits of luminaries and everyday people alike with a cosmopolitan refinement. His famous subjects included pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, poet Countee Cullen, boxers Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, and singers Mamie Smith and Hazel Scott.
Self-taught, Van Der Zee began photographing his family and friends in his hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts. His later work as a photographer in Harlem built on these familial beginnings by emphasizing motherhood, marriage, and community through careful collaboration with his sitters to combine their personal identities with their social standing and aspirations. His photographic career continued into the late 1960s with mail-order retouching and calendar work.
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