Our Image Is Our Message: As Told by Black Women Artists
By Faron Manuel
As this year’s March on Washington Film Festival celebrates contributions of black women to the Civil Rights Movement—this exhibition of legacy and contemporary black women artists explores the stories, and perspectives of black women, as told through art. As this group show highlights a range of narrative, and figurative works that delve into the lived experiences, observations, and aspirations of black women artists through time. With works in the show spanning a period of 40 years, this exhibit is intended to give the viewer a glimpse into how black women artists have grappled with questions of history, social ills, and their individual strivings. Featuring works from legacy artists Elizabeth Catlett, Ruth Inge Hardison, Dr. Samella Lewis and Faith Ringgold, in conversation with contemporary women artists Joyce Owens, Lavett Ballard, Evita Tezeno, Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, Phyllis Stephens among others — bearing witness to these artists varied approaches to self articulation, and social concerns.
Drawn mostly from Black Art In America’s holdings, this exhibit is comprised of works from sixteen black women artists—in a far reaching display, that explores a variety of media. Providing a context for various modes of artistic production, varied perspectives, and contributions of black women to visual culture. Juxtaposing examples of works by legacy artists, with the contemporary to present a number of through lines, or connections between past, and present.
The artworks included in this show span a period of four decades, and explore a broad rage of subject matter. Works on view in this exhibit are organized into themes that highlight the contributions of legacy artists, self conception, social criticism, and notions of freedom. Posited as an intergenerational discourse, this show reveals a number of time honored themes, and issues that have been long addressed by black women artists. At a moment in time where African American artists are more visible than ever, this show imparts a glimpse into the evolution, and direction of black women artists strivings, and negotiation of some of life’s most important questions. Essentially, this exhibition is a visual dialogue between the past, the present, the self, and the world—with black women at the center.
Foregrounding with works by legacy artists, examples of many seemingly contemporary questions, and perceptions presented in art will reveal themselves to be longstanding. As artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Ruth Inge Hardison, Samella Lewis, Faith Ringgold, and their counterparts have formerly delved into identity politics, social activism, and freedom of expression. For example, in the woodblock print Survivor by Catlett, a black woman, a working woman, is posited in a resting moment between tasks—dignified, with a contemplative air. Evocative of the role of identity in the sense that these types of works by Catlett provide truthful reflections of working class people, and their complexity. This emphasis on the dignity, and agency of women are also visible in the work of Ruth Inge Hardison, whose sculptural depiction of Sojourner Truth, one of the more widely known abolitionists, and suffragists of the 19th century, presented in a position that is suggestive of her political strivings, and self affirming demeanor.
Contemplation of social concerns, and racial politics in particular can be seen throughout the works of Faith Ringgold. With works like Under A Blood Red Sky, and President Barack Obama, individually representing her vantage point with regards to the initiative of black people to bring about their own liberation in America, but also the affirmation of their Americanness and right to stated constitutional and social freedoms presently. When juxtaposed, these two works also represent the trajectory of her philosophies on the issues of race and racism over a period of roughly two decades. As both works in a sense depict a confrontation with both historic, and contemporary notions of what it means to be black and what it means to be American. Then too, an engagement with intergenerational discourse, the affirmation of womanhood, and social critique can be seen in Together We Stand by Samella Lewis. Depicting a young girl, venerated and encouraged by surrounding adults. All examples of black women artist long activating currently relevant conversations. As well, master artists like Ringgold, and Lewis who are creating presently have the opportunity to offer unique perspectives on a range of issues.
Reading the world, and our current state of affairs, contemporary artists at times ignite socially relevant conversations by composing works that feature historic figures, depictions of radical chic, and contrasting images that suggest the realities of present social dynamics. In works that tend to articulate connections that exist between past and present. Some artists even echo the sentiments of historic trailblazers through edifying them in their works. As with Makeda Rainey’s digital collage of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Grey outside the United States Capital on January 4, 1965, in their advocacy for voting rights—as the piece titled, Praising the Bridges We Crossed Over depicts the trio adorned by Dutch wax fabric print halos, as they foreground the US Capital, with Fannie Lou Hamer in the center, given an enhanced regal glow by her dawning of layered in Dutch wax fabric on her attire.
As well, in Unbought and Unbossed by Evita Tezeno, she features Shirley Chisholm, an unapologetic advocate for Civil Rights and the rights of the poor. Chisholm was also the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, and a candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 1972. As well Four Little Girls is another example of Tezeno’s collage works depicting the four innocent girls that were victims of a racial attack carried out on the African American congregation of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL by four members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. Since then these four little girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair) have become symbolic of historic efforts to change racial arrangements in America. In Four Little Girls, Tezeno depicts these youths together, in a jovial, and playful mood. Exemplifying their innocence through brightly colored church dresses, and a somewhat unassuming demeanor.
Notions of freedom are often grappled with by artists, and tend to be open ended. Sill, common threads found in some of the presented works are self awareness, optimism, and the ability to simply [be]. Articulating aspirations of collective, and individual freedom, many of these works embody meaning in cool colors, or the addition of leisurely themes. As well, some works are more contemplative, and evoke optimism, and self affirmation—like Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn by Duhirwe Rushemeza, a linocut on paper, depicting a monochromatic image of a figure, composed of isolated fragments, yet maintaining a hopeful disposition. Imbued also with a duality that leans toward simplistic joy is Stay Woke, Stay Standing by Zola Taylor, a painting on canvas, featuring two female figures, side by side, imposed before a cool blue backdrop in a colorful, yet vacuous context. Though the work features a pair, there is still a since of isolation in the subjects…still this sense of isolation, and vacuousness is offset by potentially humorous, and playful aspects in the work, like the nonverbal conversation between the two figures—as their hands and feet are held in opposing positions, adding a more lighthearted aspects of the work.
A freeness and quality of self awareness can be gleaned from Untitled by Delita Martin. A rendering of a woman, as a content spectator, evoking a sense of self knowing, and awareness of herself, and the viewer. The general monochromatic quality of the drawing element is disrupted by an embroidered disc collaged into the work, slightly offset, as though rising from behind the sitter—adding a since of wonder to an already captivating rendering of a self satisfied woman. This notion of self satisfaction or [being] is also evident in Greater Expectations, a story quilt by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, centering an image of an enslaved woman, surrounded by images of cotton flowers, all super imposed against the abstracted backdrop of nature, the sky, and shimmering sunlight—these layers intercepting the course of a large black bird flying across the upper part of the quilt’s surface. All with the woman at the center of the work, resting her hand across her torso, with a general air of calm anticipation—awaiting an inevitable resolve.
In some instances artists imbue the familiar, with fantastic, and imaginative notions of the self. Opting to materialize deep personal concepts into concrete imagery—merging the seen with the unseen. Like Joyce Owens, whose cubistic sculptural forms serve as representations of female figures affirming themselves, contemplating their positions in the world, and confronting various emotions through contorted facial expressions and positioning of the body. A quality that can be seen in A Witness, as this small sculpture portrays a “puzzled, yet knowing” image of a woman’s face, as an onlooker. Lending the viewers imaginations to the possibilities of what the depicted could be a witness to. Other examples of the imaginative self conception explored in this exhibition are Throne, by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and Rights of Passage by Lavett Ballard—both works that exemplify aspirations of regality, wedded to symbolic historical, or mythic, and metaphysical means of attaining regality and status. As both artists tend to layer their works with iconography suggestive of a reconnection with ancestral forces.
As a collective, these works provide an intergenerational discourse on womanhood, politics, and self conception—in a black woman centered negotiation of some of humanity’s greatest existential questions. As well, this exhibition provides a platform for a group of contemporary black women artist to negotiate their social, and aesthetic concerns, all within a historical context. In a moment where living black women artists are receiving more attention than ever before, this show provides a unique look into what contemporary black women artists are thinking about, and striving for, as they enter new and uncharted territory.
Legacy Artists: Elizabeth Catlett, Ruth Inge Hardison, Dr. Samella Lewis and Faith Ringgold — Contemporary Artists: Joyce Owens, Lavett Ballard, Evita Tezeno, Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, Phyllis Stephens, Zoya Taylor, Duhirwe Rushemeza, Stephanie Jackson, Makeda Rainey, Delita Martin and Deborah Shedrick
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Faron Manuel is an independent curator, and art writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2016 Faron has also been the coordinator of the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship, and the Mellon Graduate Fellowship in Object-Centered Curatorial Research at the High Museum of Art. Prior to joining the High Museum, he was the Special Projects Curatorial Assistant to the Director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. While at the CAU Art Museum, he curated his first exhibition, Négritude (2015)—that explored a French literary and philosophical movement within the African diaspora through art, before receiving his B.A. in History from Clark Atlanta University in 2015. He later served as the Assistant Editor at Black Art In America from 2015-2016, where he regularly interviewed collectors, and reported widely on contemporary art.
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