At the current moment of racial tension in the United States and the general criticism of the heritage of colonialism, a burden worn by various European nations as well, it is mandatory to reclaim the presence of Black artists and their contribution to art history. Some of them, of course, were women. Although their practices are still not sufficiently analyzed, presented to wider audiences, and are certainly not part of a large number of national collections, their pioneering activity was crucial for the betterment of Black artists in the American context.
The majority of the black women sculptors on our list, for instance, grew out of the Harlem Renaissance, an astounding social and cultural phenomenon centered in iconic New York City district throughout the 1920s that attracted various creative minds both from the States and from African and Caribbean colonies. It was tough being Black, as well as being a woman in a society in which different forms of slavery were still very much present at the beginning of the 20th century. The desire of artists to pursue a career in arts and especially in sculpture, the medium traditionally associated with men, was a bold move at the time. Black female artists had to face two-fold discrimination to prove their visions are worthy enough in a (white) male-dominated racist society.
To revisit their distinguished practices mostly focused on the Black experience, we review six black female sculpture-makers who can be seen as the genuine heroines of their time.
Featured image: Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created as part of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, circa 1938. Photograph by Andrew Herman via Archives of American Art, Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907) was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage who gained international recognition as she worked a great deal of her career in Rome. Lewis’s practice is characterized by the appropriation of Neoclassical-style for the representation of themes related to the lives of black and indigenous peoples of the Americas. During the American civil war, she emerged as the sculptress; by the end of the 19th century, Lewis acted as the only black woman in the American artistic mainstream.
Featured image: Edmonia Lewis - The death of Cleopatra. Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image creative commons.
Another remarkable woman who used her art for a similar purpose was slightly younger is Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877 –1968). At the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, this fascinating woman, who was also a painter and poet, gained critical acclaim for exploring Afrocentric themes. Interestingly so, Warrick was a protegée of Auguste Rodin, as she developed a unique figural style aimed to represent racial injustice, such as the lynching of Mary Turner. Described as one of the most imaginative Black artists of her generation, Warrick used her practice as a platform to confront the centuries-old segregation of African-Americans, and the inequality they were (and still are) facing.
Featured image: Portrait of Meta Warrick Fuller; Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller - Mary Turner, 1919. Images creative commons.
Augusta Savage (1892 –1962) was an acclaimed American artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1920s she arrived in New York from Jacksonville with a desire to become a sculptor. Savage managed to enroll in the Cooper Union and in 1929 won a scholarship to travel to Paris and Rome. Thanks to her efforts during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration decided to include black artists in its Federal Art Project. Savage was the first African American to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and later became the Director of the Harlem Community Art Center. Her art studio was an important site for the generation of acclaimed artists, and until the end of her life, she continually fought for equal rights for African Americans in the art world.
Featured image: Portrait of Augusta Savage, between 1935 and 1947. Image creative commons.
Selma Hortense Burke (1900 – 1995) was an important proponent of the Harlem Renaissance movement; she taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center under the leadership of sculptor Augusta Savage and worked for the Works Progress Administration on the New Deal Federal Art Project. During the 1930s Burke traveled to Europe on two occasions to study sculpture in Vienna whilst on a Rosenwald fellowship, and to Paris with Aristide Maillol where she met Henri Matisse, who adored her work. Best known for a bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she released many works of public art, as well as portraits of leading African-American figures like Mary McLeod Bethune Duke Ellington and Booker T. Washington, and in general perceived herself as "a people's sculptor."
Featured image: Portrait of Selma Hortense Burke. Photographer: Peter A. Juley & Son. Black and white photographic print. Dimensions: 8 in x 10 in. Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image creative commons.
Ruth Inge Hardison (1914 –2016) is best known for her iconic 1960s series of busts titled Negro Giants in History. A great deal of her body of work is focused on the historic black representation. Hardison usually worked with wax, clay, or plaster molds, and later cast in into bronze or stone. For a long time, she was the only female member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (BAAL), an organization founded in 1969 to promote awareness of black artistic accomplishments.
Featured image: Ruth Inge Hardison - Bust of Charles Richard Drew. Image creative commons.
A more contemporary figure, Simone Leigh (1967-) works in various media including sculpture, performance, installations, and video. Her practice is often described as auto-ethnographic, as she includes African art and vernacular objects, and feminism. Leigh pays special attention to the marginalization of women of color and the complex interplays between various aspects of history.
Leigh is best known for her works Brick House, a 16-feet-tall bronze bust of a Black woman, and The Waiting Room, a multimedia piece which centers on the story about Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died from blood clots after sitting in a waiting room of a Brooklyn hospital for 24 hours.
Featured image: 16-foot tall bronze statue Brick House by Simone Leigh. At the High Line Park's Spur above 10th Avenue. The Statue faces south along 10th Avenue. "5 Manhattan West" building ("350 33rd Street") is on the right side of the photograph. "20 Hudson Yards" (Hudson Yards Mall) is on the left side of the photograph.