Category: Quick Art History Reads

Art History: Ernest Watson

I think it was summer when I first saw a painting by Ernest Watson. My brothers and I were staying with cousins in Texas, traveling from one cousins house to another, staying up all night watching movies and running through thick green grass under the piercing hot sun. Every few minutes someone would run back…

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Richard Powell- Art & Art History

Richard J. Powell is John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University, where he has taught since 1989.  He studied at Morehouse College and Howard University before earning his doctorate in art history at Yale University.  Along with teaching courses in American art, the arts of the African Diaspora, and contemporary visual studies, he has written extensively on topics ranging from primitivism to postmodernism, including such titles as Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991), Black Art: A Cultural History (1997 & 2002), and Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (2008).[1]

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Thornton Dial – Artist

"Art is strange-looking stuff and most people don’t understand art. Most people don’t understand my art, the art of the Negroes, because most people don’t understand me, don’t understand the Negroes at all. If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding." ~Thornton Dial [1]

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South of Pico by Kellie Jones

In South of Pico Kellie Jones explores how the artists in Los Angeles's black communities during the 1960s and 1970s created a vibrant, productive, and engaged activist arts scene in the face of structural racism. Emphasizing the importance of African American migration, as well as L.A.'s housing and employment politics, Jones shows how the work of black Angeleno artists such as Betye Saar, Charles White, Noah Purifoy, and Senga Nengudi spoke to the dislocation of migration, L.A.'s urban renewal, and restrictions on black mobility.

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“Glory” inspires Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project

Elizabeth Catlett's "Glory" inspires music. The sculptures of the late African-American artist and civil rights activist Elizabeth Catlett are the inspiration for a new jazz composition. Rufus Reid, a bass musician who's been playing jazz for half a century, uses Catlett's artwork to explore the intersection between music and the visual arts. In his new project, called "Quiet Pride," Reid tries to convey Catlett's sculptures in sound. [1]

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“Madonna” by Elizabeth Catlett

From an early age I've always been fascinated by the Madonna and child imagery. "Madonna, in Christian art, depiction of the Virgin Mary; the term is usually restricted to those representations that are devotional rather than narrative and that show her in a nonhistorical context and emphasize later doctrinal or sentimental significance. The Madonna is accompanied most often by the infant Christ, [but she can be depicted alone.]" [1]

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Mask for Sande Society

The sowei mask evokes an ideal. The deep, shiny black surface recalls the smooth skin of young initiates and the deep pools of water where Sande’s guardian spirit resides. The downcast eyes, scarification marks, demure mouth, and styled hair communicate dignity and composure. Neck rings and a high forehead add to the mask’s beauty.

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Marilyn Nance – Artist & Photojournalist

Marilyn Nance is a photojournalist who goes her own way. She wants to tell the truth, particularly about her own community whom she calls ordinary working class Black folks. She follows her instincts, leading her down paths beyond still photography. Marilyn noted in a lecture at the Library of Congress, ". . . the commercial media often has no interest in showing the images that I feel need to be shown."1

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Carrie Mae Weems – Artist

Considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists, Carrie Mae Weems has investigated family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power. Determined as ever to enter the picture—both literally and metaphorically—Weems has sustained an on-going dialogue within contemporary discourse for over thirty years. During this time, Carrie Mae Weems has developed a complex body of art employing photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation, and video.[1]

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Renee Stout – Artist

Starting with simple, house-shaped boxes into which she put feathers, beadwork she herself created, tiny bones, buttons, and memorabilia of family members, Stout progressed to creating "divining tables" and room-size installations. At the same time, she began developing an ongoing fictional narrative- the story of the stay-at-home Dorothy and the African explorer Colonel Frank- which she recorded in notebooks and which became another thread tying her work firmly to American and African traditions.[3]

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Betye Saar – Artist & Educator

A pioneer of second-wave feminist and post­war black nationalist aesthetics—whose lasting influence was secured by her iconic reclamation of the Aunt Jemima figure in works such as The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)—Betye Saar began her career in design before transitioning to assemblage and installation. [4]

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Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence – Artist

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence's first formal study of art came at Howard University, where she studied with the painter Lois Maillou Jones and with printmaker James Lesesne Wells. During the Harlem Renaissance, Knight became a daily participant in the workshop of sculptor Augusta Savage, director of the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and later of the Harlem Community Arts Center. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Knight became an itinerant artist of sorts, accompanying her husband, Jacob Lawerence, as he pursued new opportunities.

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Harriet Powers – Folk Artist

Harriet Powers used traditional techniques in her quilts to record local legends, Bible stories and astronomical events on her quilts. One of the panels on Powers quilts illustrate the “dark day” of May 19, 1780 (which is now known as dense smoke over North America caused by Canadian wildfires) and the November 13, 1833, as the “night of falling stars” that convinced many terrified Americans that Judgment Day had come, but was later identified as the Leonid meteor storm. Two of her quilts are on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC; Bible Quilt of 1886 and Pictorial Quilt of 1898.[2]

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Clementine Hunter – Folk Artist

Clementine Hunter is celebrated for her use of bold colors and shapes to narrate plantation life in 19th and 20th century Louisiana as an African American. Clementine Hunter is Louisiana’s most famous female artist, and she is one of the most important folk artists of all time.
Her work can be seen in the Smithsonian Institute, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the High Museum of Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the New York Historical Association, the Oprah Winfrey Collection in Chicago and many other museums and private collections across the country.[1]

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Dr. Selma Burke – Sculptor

Some of Burke’s most notable sculptures include Temptation (1938),  Despair (1951),  Fallen Angel(1958), Mother and Child (1968), and Together (1975).  A nine-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. she completed while in her eighties is on display in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.  She received numerous awards and honors which included three honorary doctorate degrees.  In 1979 Burke was recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her contribution to African American art history.[4]

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Augusta Savage – Sculptor

In the 1920s Augusta Savage received commissions to create portrait busts of W.E.B. Du Bois and black nationalist Marcus Garvey; both pieces were hailed for their power and dynamism. On the strength of these works and especially the poignant Gamin (1929)—a portrait bust of a streetwise boy and one of Savage’s few extant pieces—she received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship that enabled her finally to study in Paris in 1929–31.**

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller – Sculptor

Created at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, Fuller's sculpture "Ethiopia" is widely considered the first Pan-African American work of art. Fuller  studied with Raphaël Collin and was mentored by painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Her work symbolized a new black identity that was emerging through the Renaissance and represented a pridefulness in African and black heritage and identity

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