In honor of Black History Month this blog post is dedicated to the talented African-American artists of the past. Artists have a unique opportunity to share his or her voice, story, or idea through creative expression. These works are often a better method to get people to understand your message since they appeal to our basic human appreciation for beautiful music, eye catching color, or linguistic ingenuity. People of color have not had the same opportunities as white people to have their voice heard so these artists have had to work against incredible odds to share their story. It is a testament to their strength, talent, and dedication that they got their work out into the world. For these reasons and more, we celebrate them today.
Edmonia Lewis: Artist, Sculptor (c. 1844 – c. 1907) – Noted as the first professional African-American and Native-American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis was a highly praised artist whose work centered around religious and classical themes. She was born in Greenbush, New York. Her early work started with plaster medallions of famous abolitionist leaders. Her first big success came when she created a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Colonel Shaw died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. She was able to buy a ticket to Rome, Italy to study sculpting with marble through the sales of copies of this famous bust. Her most famous work is titled, “The Death of Cleopatra.” She showed it at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and in Chicago in 1878. Unfortunately, the work was so heavy she was not able to bring it back with her to Italy. It was thought to be lost but was found several decades after her death. Her works are part of the permanent collections of the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Augusta Savage: Artist, Civil Rights Activist, Sculptor, Educator (1892-1962) – Augusta Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida. She started her career as an artist by using the natural clay found in her neighborhood to make figurines. Her father did not approve of her art and made several attempts to stop her. Savage was once quoted as saying he, “almost whipped all the art out of me.” She moved to New York City in the early 1920s where she studied at Cooper Union. In 1923 she applied to a program to study art in France. She was rejected due to her race. In response she sent letters to media outlets to make the discriminatory practices public. Many newspapers covered the story but the committee did not change their decision. Savage found some success making busts of famous African-Americans such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. She is considered to be a prominent artist of the Harlem Renaissance. She did eventually get to study in Paris when she was awarded the Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1929. She went on to establish her own studio in NYC and helped found the Harlem Artists’ Guild. She was commissioned to create a piece for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. She created “The Harp,” a 16 foot tall work featuring 12 African-Americans as the strings of the harp. There is a kneeling young man offering music in his hands. Sadly, the work was destroyed after the World’s Fair. In her later life she settled in the country and taught children in summer camps.
Jacob Lawrence: Academic, Painter (1917-2000) – Jacob Lawrence is the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the 20th century. He is most famous for his “Migration Series” and “War Series.” He used these works to bring African-American experiences to life. Lawrence grew up in Harlem in New York City. He graduated from the American Artists School in 1939 and afterwards received funding from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. At this time he had already developed his own form of modernism and worked in narrative series. He would produce 30 or more paintings on one subject. His “Migration Series” was exhibited at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in 1942. Lawrence was the first African-American artist to be displayed at the gallery. During WWII Lawrence was drafted. He was asked to document his experience of war around the world through art. He produced 48 paintings but unfortunately all of them have been lost. When he returned home he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and he painted his “War Series.” In 1951, he began a series based on performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1971, he accepted a tenured position to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle. He spent the rest of his life painting commissions. Most of them were limited editions to help fund noble causes for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also painted murals for the Harold Washington Center in Chicago, the University of Washington, Howard University, and a 72 foot mural for NYC’s Times Square subway station.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painter (1960-1988) – Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, NY. He had a Haitian-American Father and a Puerto Rican Mother. He found inspiration in his cultural heritage. Basquiat began drawing at an early age using the sheets of paper his father, an accountant, would bring home from work. His mother was very supportive of his work. He began doing graffiti around NYC in the late 1970s under the name “SAMO.” He sold sweatshirts and postcards with his artwork on the street to fund his work. In 1980 his work was included in a group show. He received critical acclaim for his fusion of words, symbols, stick figures, and animals. He skyrocketed to fame, soon being able to sell certain pieces for $50,000. He was included in a new art movement call Neo-Expressionism that featured lots of young, experimental artists. In the mid-1980s, Basquiat worked with pop artist Andy Warhol. They did a show together featuring corporate logos and cartoon characters. Basquiat continued to show his work around the world. In 1986, he went to Africa to do a show in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In this same year he showed almost 60 paintings at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany. He was the youngest artist to exhibit his work there. Though his art career did not last long, he has been credited with bringing the African-American and Latino experience to the elite art world.
Gordon Parks: Pianist, Director, Photographer, Songwriter, Writer (1912-2006) – Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. He was a self-taught artist and went on to be the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. Parks attended a segregated elementary school and faced intense discrimination as a child. He was not allowed to participate in many activities at his high school and his teachers discouraged higher education. Inspired by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine, he bought a camera when he was 25. Marva Louis, wife of boxer Joe Lewis, saw some of his early work and encouraged him to move to a bigger city. After moving to Chicago, Parks began taking pictures of low-income neighborhoods on the South Side. In 1941, Parks received a fellowship from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) for his photographs. During this time, he took one of his most famous works, “American Gothic, Washington D.C.” This work featured someone from the FSA cleaning crew with an American flag in the background. When Parks was hired to be a freelance photographer for Vogue he became famous for shots involving more motion than the usual static fashion poses. After moving to Harlem, he began a photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader. This won him a position with Life magazine. He worked there for 20 years covering all kinds of subjects. He also took portraits of African-Americans leaders including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammed Ali. In 1962 he wrote an autobiographical novel called The Learning Tree. He published a number of books over the course of his lifetime. In 1969, Parks became the first African-American director of a major Hollywood movie, the film adaptation of The Learning Tree. He wrote the screenplay for the film and composed the score. His next film, “Shaft" was one of the highest grossing films of 1971. Parks continued to make films for television. Parks is remembered for being a pioneer in the photography field. He is quoted as saying, “People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930’s...this is as important for historic reasons as any other.”
I am sad to say that I was not familiar with many of these artists before researching this post. These works are truly engaging and significant. It is also worth considering the incredible struggle these men and women endured to share their voices with the world. artMEAT is excited to shine light on works from a diverse group of artists. We will always strive to keep our minds, ears, eyes, and hearts open for art to help us understand the paths of one another.