Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

theirown.gifEven before multiculturalism first stormed the ivory towers of academia in the mid-1980s, the tendency towards “revising” or rethinking American history and culture to include the accomplishments of both women and racial minorities had been in evidence. Hence, it may seem surprising -- or even astonishing -- that our most recent era of Political Correctness failed to produce any comprehensive, scholarly study of African-American women’s artwork. Indeed, such a study has only emerged this year as a result of art historian Lisa E. Farrington’s tireless commitment to produce this extensive look at black women’s artistic contributions from slavery to the present.

In many ways, Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists attempts to answer one basic question: In a society in which the vast majority of black women are objectified, hyper-sexualized, and marginalized (socially, politically, and economically), what does black women’s art actually look like? Farrington, a senior art historian at Parsons School of Design, takes up this question with a wonderful mixture of historical specificity and detailed aesthetic analysis in this 354-page hardcover tome that includes 150 color and 100 black & white reproductions.

Part One of the book provides a historicized discussion of black women’s art by contextualizing the emergence of major artists within the key socio-political events and ideological notions of the time. Hence her book charts the progression of black women’s artwork from the “utilitarian” objects of slavery (e.g., quilts, dolls, dresses, baskets, and even gardens) to the self-conscious production of much more “aesthetic” pieces of sculpture and painting in the late 19th and 20th centuries. By the 1960s and 1970s, black women’s art had become heavily influenced by both Black Nationalism and Feminism and sharply rejected Western artistic conventions in favor of more “traditional” African aesthetic principles. Part Two discusses the influence of abstraction, conceptualism, and vernacular folk art on the emergence of postmodern and “post-black” women’s art of the 1980s and 1990s

At each stage of her historical narrative, Farrington carefully renders the key biographical details of each artist so as to highlight the unique challenges facing women of color artists through the ages. Thus we learn of sculptresses Georgette Seabrooke Powell and Selma Hortense Burke, who worked as a housekeeper and a nurse, respectively, while pursuing their artistic careers; Symbolist sculptress Meta Warwick Fuller, pupil of Rodin, who was denied lodgings in Europe because of her race; sketch artist and sculptress Mary Edmonia Lewis, who was accused of poisoning her fellow white classmates and denied graduation from Oberlin; and sculptress Nancy Elizabeth Prophet who, lacking money to store and preserve her work, saw most of her pieces destroyed. Farrington is adept at using biography to illustrate the constraints of racism and economics on the careers of black women artists, and her often engaging commentary -- coupled with lush reproductions of artists’ work -- bring such women and their struggles to new life.

At the same time, Farrington reveals the sheer depth and breadth of black women’s artistic outpourings, from contemporary abstractionists like Barbara Chase-Riboud and Howardena Pindell; to colorist painters Alma Woodsey Thomas and Gaye Ellington; to mixed media artist Betye Saar; and to contemporary painter Faith Ringgold, whose work highlights a feminist revolutionary consciousness. Reinvigorating scores of forgotten art objects, each of which, in the words of art historian Tritobia Hayes-Benjamin, “represents hundreds of pieces that have been lost” to the twin forces of “poverty and obscurity,” Farrington’s book is an act of preservation -- one that will be treasured by artists and art-lovers alike for both its importance and its impressiveness. - Patricia Ann Carter

Ms. Carter has taught college composition and literature at community colleges and universities in both IL and NJ. She currently resides in Manhattan, where she teaches English at a private high school.