Hello I’m your host Janelle and in celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to discuss a few black artists that I find particularly interesting and worth noting. That being said, these are not the only black artists worth knowing, I would strongly suggest that everyone take the time to read some of the resources I’ve provided below and to allow themselves to fall down the rabbit hole of black artists that art history hasn’t promoted as highly as other artists. I mean if you just even look at the Wikipedia links I’ve provided on each artist and then click on names you don’t know, you can learn a lot!
Now, I would also LOVE to hear any black artists that you all enjoy. Tag me on Instagram or Twitter with any posts you may have of black artists. I, very obviously, love hearing about art and artists. Now just to briefly touch on the web page associated with this episode, I want to make sure you all know that you can view all of the images and resources I discuss in this episode on my website, www.boozyarthistorian.com. On my website you will find all kinds of goodies, specifically web pages dedicated to each podcast episode I produce. Just click on the link to the episode you want on the website’s homepage and you’ll find the episode’s audio, a transcript of the audio, and accompanying resources and images. Right, now that I’ve done all of the housekeeping, let’s get into the good stuff!
I would like to start this episode off with a couple of historical terms I think will be beneficial to know for this episode. The first being The Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement in New York City around the 1920s and 30s that was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, and politics. Throughout the U.S. Harlem, New York City became a sort of sanctuary for a large number of African Americans fleeing racist conditions in the South. Now that is not to say they weren’t subjected to racism in New York City, but it was far less severe than anything in the South they would have faced. A number of the artists I discuss in this episode were major influences in the Harlem Renaissance.
Now the next term I would like to touch on is the Reconstruction Era. This is basically an era in American history which takes place directly after the Civil War. Slavery had been abolished and America worked on reconstructing itself, sort of picking up the pieces, hence the name Reconstruction Era. Of course the Reconstruction Era is a bit more complex than just that simple summation I gave you all, but for the sake of keeping this focused on art history I will leave it at that. If you would like to know more about the Harlem Renaissance or the Reconstruction Era, I’ve put links in the Resources section of this episode’s webpage for you to look at.
Ok, for the sake of keeping things somewhat organized I’ll be discussing 10 artists chronologically, and I consider each artist to be important to either art history and/or the art world currently.
The first artist I would like to discuss is Edmonia Lewis. Lewis was born sometime around 1844, and died in 1907. Lewis’ exact birth year is unknown since she constantly wrote down different dates on official documentation. Historians believe she was born roughly around July 4, 1844 in Greenbush, New York. Lewis was the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve national and international presence during her lifetime. Her works were predominantly in the Neoclassical style and focused on themes relating to black and indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Lewis' mother was Mississiaugas and of African American descent. Lewis’ father was unknown but historians believe either Samuel Lewis or Robert Benjamin Lewis. Unfortunately was an orphan by the age of 9 and was adopted by her two aunts (specifically her mother’s sisters). The good news is, when she was adopted by her aunts she also gained a half brother, Samuel.
Now, the four of them lived near Niagara Falls in NY, but her brother Samuel left the family some time later to join the California Gold Rush where he made rather a lovely fortune for himself. What’s really heartwarming is, Samuel sent quite a bit of this money to Lewis and made sure that she remained financially comfortable for the rest of her life. This money, her brother sent, allowed for Lewis to become well educated, and she studied at Oberlin Academy Preparatory School and then Oberlin Collegiate Institute (which is now known as Oberlin College). Fun fact: Oberlin College was one of the first colleges in the U.S. to allow women and people of various ethnicities to attend classes.
Unfortunately, Lewis spoke frequently about the horrible racism and discrimination she faced during her time during Oberlin College. She was even poisoned at one point, but luckily survived! The bad news is she was then blamed for the poisoning of herself and her close friend. When she wasn’t found guilty by the college she was then attacked by unknown assailants who beat her horribly and left her for dead. Then when she managed to not die, yet again, the local authorities had the audacity to then come after her and formally charge her with poisoning herself and her friend! Lewis very smartly lawyered up and was represented by John Mercer Langston, who was an Oberlin alum and the first African-American lawyer in Ohio. Langston was able to quickly get the case thrown out since the authorities had failed to gather any real evidence against Lewis.
Now Lewis was one tough cookie, and went back to school where she was then charged multiple times with stealing artists’ materials from the college. At this point Lewis had had enough, which I mean by this point she deserved a sainthood for putting up with everything, and she left the school and moved to Boston where she became a formal sculptor. And she went on to open her own solo exhibition in 1864! Lewis specialized in busts of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Which led to the creation of her most famous work, a bust of Union Colonel Shaw. For those of you who aren’t aware, Shaw was a commander of the African-American in the Civil War regiment from Massachusetts. Shaw’s family loved the bust and were happy to let Lewis continue to make copies of it. It was these copies that allowed her the funds to travel to Rome in 1866, where she was much better received since racism wasn’t as bad in Italy during this time period.
While in Rome, Lewis really came into her own. She met other artists, and was able to have her own studio, and really hone her sculpting techniques. So much so that her studio in Rome actually goes on to be come a tourist destination! Now, one of her works that I would like to focus on is The Death of Cleopatra. Which is Image 1 on the webpage associated with this episode. This statue was created for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and represented the abolitionist movement and acted as a representation of black women as well. To give context, during this time period people were discussing how Cleopatra didn’t have a European complexion and how that fit into the context of women of color. Cleopatra was also a woman in power, which made her a sort of bad guy in history, because we all know how kindly society viewed women in power then and now. So of course, Lewis saw a bit of herself in Cleoptra’s story and made this into a wonderful subject for her work. Tragically the statue didn’t sell to a museum or collector, but rather a gambler called “Blind John” Condon who then had it act as a gravemarker for a racehorse called “Cleopatra”. At some point the work was moved to the racetrack near where the horse’s grave was, and then in 1994 the statue was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum where it underwent extensive restoration.
Unfortunately, with tastes in art changing Lewis found her neoclassical style out of vogue and she sort of falls off the radar. We do know that in her later years she seemed to have bounced between Paris and London, and she was buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London.
Now the next artist I want to discuss is Henry Ossawa Tanner. Many of you may recognize his famous work, The Banjo Lesson, before his name, which you can see in Image 2. Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1859 and died in 1937. When Tanner was a small child his family moved to Philadelphia where his father worked closely with the abolitionist movement and became close friends with Frederick Douglas. Tanner was interested in the arts from an early age and supposedly when he was 13 years old he decided he would become a painter.
In 1879 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he was the only black student at the time. That being said, going to the Academy was incredibly influential on his style as an artist. At the Academy Tanner met and closely studied under Thomas Eatkins. Who some of you may know from the famous painting The Gross Clinic. Fun fact: Tanner was a favorite student of Eakins, so much so that Eakins actually painted a portrait of Tanner 20 years after Tanner had left the Academy!
Much like Lewis, and well frankly all of the artists I discuss in this episode, Tanner faced horrible racism in America and found by traveling to Europe his works were much better received. Although instead of going to Rome though, he went to Paris. Where Tanner ended up spending the rest of his life. Tanner quickly became friends with Atherton Curtis who then went on to become a patron of Tanner’s works. Tanner spent countless hours at the Louvre and was heavily influenced by artists like Gustave Courbet. Throughout his career, Tanner painted mostly religious works. Some of you may know Tanner from his other well recognized work The Annunciation (which currently sits in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Tanner had a lovely life for himself in Paris and married a Swedish-American opera singer, and they had a son Jesse.
Fun fact: Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City was the first painting by an African-American artist to have been purchased for the permanent collection of the White House. The not so fun part about this fact is that it took until the Clinton Administration for an African-American artist to be represented in the White House’s permanent collection. You can find some of Tanner’s works at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.
The next artist I want to discuss is actually one of my personal favorites, James Van Der Zee. Van Der Zee was born in 1866 in Lenox, Massachusetts, and died in 1983. What I love about Van Der Zee is he was absolutely enamored with music from a young age and wanted to be a professional violinist. His parents encouraged his other favorite pastime, photography, which is how he ended up supporting himself as a musician. In 1906 Van Der Zee moved with his family from Lenox to Harlem in New York City, where he worked at becoming a professional musician. In 1915 Van Der Zee moved to Newark, New Jersey where he took on a job as a dark room assistant and then moved up to being a portraitist. Within a year, Van Der Zee moved back to Harlem where he launched his own photography studio.
The planets really aligned for Van Der Zee on this one. He opened his studio around the time that there was a huge influx of African American immigrants and migrants arriving in Harlem and it really made him successful as a photographer. You can confidently say that he was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. I think it’s also important to note that he was successful because he was black. And what I mean by that is, during the turn of the century, we see people of color avoidinging images due to a fear that photographs or images taken of themselves could be used against them as a form of surveillance or for other nefarious reasons. So Van Der Zee’s clients trusted him, and because of this we get these wonderful authentic photographs of all kinds of people who normally wouldn’t of had the chance or felt comfortable sitting for a photography session.
Van Der Zee became one of the most important photographers of Harlem’s middle class during the 1920s and 1930s, and quickly became popular amongst celebrities. Some of the celebrities he photographed were Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Joe Louis, Florence Mills, and Marcus Garvey. Unfortunately the Great Depression really hurt Van Der Zee’s studio and he had a significant drop in clients during that time period. But until the day he died Van Der Zee was well known for his photographs and even had a posthumous exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. To see some of his incredible photographs I highly recommend checking out the National Gallery of Art’s website, link is on the webpage associated with this episode. I also want to note that the National Gallery of Art is also currently hosting a Van Der Zee exhibition that is open until May 30, 2022 so if you’re in D.C. go check it out!
Moving along to the next artist, Augusta Savage. Savage was born in 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida and died in 1962. Much like the other artists her father was a minister, but unlike the other artists her father was strongly against her becoming an artist. Savage’s passion for sculpting was actually encouraged by her High School Principal! In 1915 she married James Savage, which unfortunately resulted in a divorce in the early 1920s. Interestingly she kept her ex-husband’s name for the rest of her life, rather than revert back to her maiden name.
Savage’s career as a professional sculptor really kicked off when she won a prize for “most original exhibit” at the 1919 Palm Beach County Fair. From there she moved to New York City and began her formal training as a sculptor at Copper Union. What is particularly interesting about her admission to Cooper Union is she was selected over 142 men who had also applied that year. So she quite obviously made an impression on the admission board with her work. Savage was an incredibly hard worker and finished her four year degree in a matter of three years! Unfortunately, when she applied for a summer art program in France she was disqualified due to her being a woman of color. This is actually an important moment for her career, since this disqualification is what led her to become a prominent figure in the equal rights movement. It also led to quite a bit of press on both sides of the Atlantic when people found out that Savage had been disqualified based on racial discrimination, which then led to her obtaining her first commission for a bust of W.E.B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library. This sort of opened the floodgates for commissions and she was soon quite busy creating busts of predominant historical and contemporary African American figures.
In 1928 Savage won the Otto Khan Prize for her sumission Head of a Negro, which is slightly ironic since Savage spent her entire life speaking out on minstrelsey representation of African Americans and Africans in general. Which of course that’s the one the commissioners chose, not realizing it was ironic. Savage was so well known in New York City that when she was awarded a fund to travel to France for work, many people in the city donated money to help cover her expenses while she worked there! Most notably Savage became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934. From there she went on to open her own studio on West 143rd Street in Harlem and everyone was welcome.
Unfortunately, in her later life, Savage didn’t make as many sales and ended up moving to Saugerties, New York where she still taught art but on a smaller scale, and also wrote children’s stories. She was an incredible figure and luckily historians are giving her the full recognition her talents and accomplishments deserve. You can see some of her works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.
Now the next artist I want to discuss is Aaron Douglas! Now unfortunately due to copyright issues I can’t show you any of his works on my website, but you can go to the National Gallery of Art’s website and view two pieces they have in their collection. You can find the link on this episode’s webpage. Now, Aaron Douglas was born in 1899 in Topeka, Kansas and died in 1979. Douglas knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist and worked whatever jobs he could to help finance and support himself until his art could make him a living wage. In 1922 Douglas received a BFA from the University of Minnesota and then went on to teach visual arts at the Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri.
Douglas had set his sights on Paris but ended up making a much longer stop than expected in Harlem, New York when traveling to Paris in 1925. He saw the incredible Harlem Renaissance art scene and decided to stay. Douglas became deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance and was asked in 1927 to create his first mural for Club Ebony. Douglas received a variety of mural commissions from all over the U.S. Some locations included: Fisk University, Bennett College for Women, Sherman Hotel in Chicago, and the 135th Street YMCA (which I believe you can still see to this day).
The majority of Douglas’ works incorporated themes of slavery and the Reconstruction era. A wonderful example of his works is Let My People Go, which utilizes the imagery of Moses asking the Pharaoh to free Jewish slaves in Egypt. You can see this work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You can find a link to this artwork in the webpage. Douglas also founded, and acted as chairperson to, the Art Department at Fisk University. He also was a founding director of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Fine Arts.
Now some of you may feel like his works seem familiar but can’t quite place your finger on what it is. Fun fact: Aaron Douglas was a major inspiration for the artists of Disney’s Princess and the Frog. The best example of his influence is in the scenery when Tiana is singing Almost There with her mom towards the beginning of the movie. In my opinion Douglas was one of the most influential artists of the Harlem Renaissance during his life and after. I would absolutely recommend reading more about him. You can find some of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art.
The next artist I would like to discuss is Charles Alston. Alston was born in 1907 in Charlotte, North Carolina and died in 1977. Much like other artists I’ve discussed, Alston’s father was a minister, who founded the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, with a predominantly African American congregation. Unfortunately, Alston never got to know his father due to Alston senior passing suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. Five years later Alston moved to Harlem, New York City with his family. Where he spent the majority of his life.
Alston graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School with a nomination for academic excellence and was the art editor of the school’s magazine The Magpie. It’s worth noting that this is not the only magazine he works on during his life. He also drew cartoons for Jester while attending Columbia (where he received a Fine Arts Degree). After receiving his BFA, Alston went on to study at Teachers College where he received his Masters degree. What is a particularly fun crossover is, while Alston was working on his Master’s degree, he taught at the Harlem Community Art Center which was founded by Augusta Savage (who I discussed just a little bit earlier on).
In the 1930s and 1940s Alston created all kinds of illustrations for magazines, including The New Yorker, and even designed an album cover for Duke Ellington. Who I’m assuming he would have known through his Aunt Bessye Beardon’s salon. Quick side note: Bessye Beardon was the mother of Romare Bearden, who was also an artist, and she was famous for her salons which Duke Ellington frequented. For those of you who are unaware of what I mean by salon, the term salon is used when describing a place, usually someone’s home that is open to intellectuals, artists, musicians, etc. and everyone would meet there during certain times of the week to chat about the arts and ideas and such.
But, I digress, let’s get back to Alston. Alston had quite the career as an artist and even had a work of his exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who later purchased the displayed work. I don’t believe it’s the one I have up on my site (Image 6), but I would recommend having a look through the Met’s online database since there are some gorgeous works by Alston that I can’t put on the site due to copyright issues. Alston had his first solo show at the John Heller Gallery (which also represented Roy Lichtenstein) and had 4 other exhibitions with them over the course of 1953-1958.
Alston was also the first African-American instructor at the Museum of Modern art in 1956! He also received a presidential appointment from former president Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council of Culture and the Arts in 1968, and was appointed to the New York City Art Commission in 1969. Fun fact: Alston’s bust of MLK Jr was the first image of an African-American to be displayed at the White House! Unfortunately this took place in 1990s, which is a bit depressing. But on a happier note, when former president Barack Obama was in office, he actually replaced the bust of Winston Churchill with Alston’s MLK Jr. bust!
Alston’s early artistic style was to create these sort of faceless people, which represented the way he felt white people saw people of color. His murals were also deeply inspired by Aaron Douglas (who I discussed just a bit ago), Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. You can find some of Alston’s murals at the Harlem Hospital, Golden State Mutual, American Museum of Natural History, and many other locations.
Ok, so now I’m going to shift from the past to the present. As you can tell by my name the boozy art HISTORIAN, I like old art but I think there’s something to be said for appreciating living, contemporary, artists.
The first artist I want to talk about is Nick Cave. Cave was born in 1959 in Fulton, Missouri and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois where he is the Director at the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Cave is a sculptor, dancer, and performance artist, and is best known for his performance art. Specifically his Soundsuits. Now due to copyright issues I can’t show you any of the images of his fantastic Soundsuits on my website but I have added a couple of links in the Resources section so you can see a few examples of them.
They are bright, colorful, vibrant, and absolutely wonderful to look at. Cave’s inspiration for these suits comes from African fashion and armor, and they were created with the idea of being these sort of protective layers. For example the suits hide the wearer’s ethnicity, so one can’t tell who is wearing the suit! But more than that each suit’s meaning and representation changes with the wearer’s movement and use of it. I personally love the fluidity of the works. At the moment over 500 of these suits exist today. The first suit Cave created was in response to the beating of Rodney King in 1992. It seems that Cave isn’t making as many but he does still continue to make them. For example, Cave created a suit in response to the unjust killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Cave sews all of his own suits and started sewing when he attended the Kansas City Art Institute. After graduating he started his own fashion line (which is for both men and women’s clothing) which was picked up by Macy’s. You can find his Soundsuits at the MoMA, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. I would recommend checking out all three of their websites to see the suits since not all of these locations will have them on display.
The next artist I want to discuss is Isaac Julien. Julien was born in 1960 in London and currently bounces between London and Santa Cruz. Julien teaches at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was incredibly lucky a few years ago to see one of Julien’s exhibitions in New York City’s Chelsea District. You can see a photo I took while at the exhibition in Image 7. The exhibition, Lesson of the Hour at Metro Pictures New York, was about better understanding Frederick Douglas then and reflecting on Douglas’ works now. Of course as a history buff this was a huge draw and why I went to see it. Julien taps into the topic of photography that I talked about earlier with James Van Der Zee, where it’s important to understand the historical contexts of photography and film in black communities.
For the most part Julien works touch on the topics of what it is to be black and gay (form which he draws personal experience from). Most of the works Julien creates are in film format, but he also works with a large variety of mediums. Julien is an incredible artist and has received a large number of awards including: Semaine de la Critique at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, and participated in the 56th and 57th Venice Biennales. And has exhibited his works all over the world. He was also nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001! You can find his works in the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Centre Pompidou, and the Hirshhorn Museum.
Now the second to last artist I would like to discuss is Wangechi Mutu. Mutu was born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya, but moved to New York in the 1990s to study at Cooper Union (which some of you may remember as the same school Augusta Savage attended), and received a Master’s degree in sculpture from Yale School of Art. Mutu works with a variety of mediums, my most favorite of hers being bronze. Mutu also incorporates themes of African futurism, gender constructs, social trauma, and environmental destruction in her work.
A theme we see frequently in her works is the subject of black women and how they’re ignored or put down by society. One of my favorite works by her was The Seated series she created for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019. The sculptures sat on the four pediments on the front of the museum. These massive sculptures depicted these formidable, strong, black women, as these sort of guardian figures. I’ve added in personal images I took of the statues, but to get a better look at them use the links I’ve provided at the bottom of Image 8-11. I’m not going to lie, I was quite sad when the statues came down from the pediments, I understand why they were taken down since the pediments are an annual exhibition which is awarded to a new artist each year. But these had been such breathtaking works that I wish I could still go by and see them.
That being said, I'm not the only one who is enthralled with Mutu’s works. Mutu is very much the “it” artist at the moment. She showed at the 56th Venice Biennale, which is one of the same ones that Isaac Julien was at, and she had an exhibition at the Palace of Legion of Honor just last year! Mutu has had a large number of international exhibitions, and was honored Deutsche Bank’s first “Artist of the Year” prize.
Mutu also founded Africa’s Out!, which is an organization whose mission is to “honor, support and defend artists who change the narrative around African and its diaspora.” I’ve added the organization’s website in the Resources section of the website for those who would like to check it out. You can find Mutu’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), the Tate Modern, and the Brooklyn Museum (to name a few).
Alright, last but certainly not least I want to discuss Osinachi (Prince Jacon “Osinachi” Igwe). Osinachi was born in 1991 in Aba, Nigeria. Osinachi is a visual artist and NFT creator, who uses Microsoft Word as a medium. I think it would be silly to write off digital art as not a real art form. New mediums have always entered art and art history and there have been people who have been skeptical of them, for example oil paints or using copper as a canvas. Considering how much technology we use in the world, I'm fascinated by Osinachi’s use of digital tools like Microsoft Word in creating art. Why not Adobe Illustrator, or Photoshop? I have a thousand questions.
The reason I want to highlight Osinachi in particular is he is the first crypto-artist from Africa to have his work sold by Christie’s in Europe. The works that he created for this sale were deeply inspired by David Hockney, and in general I recommend you having a look at his works. They are wonderfully captivating and I’ve put in a link, in the Resources section of the webpage, for you all to see some of his works. Osinachi is also the Chief Creative Officer for SocialStack, which is a social token protocol on Ethereum and Celo.
I would definitely recommend keeping an eye on him in the future since I’m sure his works will be talked about quite a bit. Especially since we continue to talk about NFTs and cryptocurrency.
As I come to the end of this particular episode I want to leave you all with this question. Many times in art history and currently we see black artists, and artists of color, being marginalized. So how can we help recognize and support these artists? I would recommend seeking out galleries that support artists of color, and ensuring that scholarships and/or awards are being given to a diverse group of artists. If there are other ways you like to support artists of color, let me know, tag me in a Tweet or Instagram post. I love things things! I think if anything just having conversations is incredibly important. For those of you who have never seen or met me, I am a white woman so I can’t claim to be an expert on all these things, but I know I want to do better and I’m continuously trying to do better.
With that being said I do recommend checking out my Resources section on this webpage because I’ve put in a few businesses and organizations that are a great place to start if you find yourself overwhelmed or not even sure where to start.
Now I hope you all found this episode incredibly helpful and perhaps learned a bit more about black artists! Should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you are welcome to DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian. You’ll also find fun drink recipes on my Instagram account, and you can find fun art history facts on my more “sober” account, @thecuriousarthistorian. If you liked this episode or any of my work, please consider donating so I can keep all of my episodes ad free! You can find me on Buy Me a Coffee under Boozy Art Historian.
You can also keep up to date on all of my upcoming episodes and other news by subscribing to my monthly newsletter. No spam, just one email at the beginning of each month highlighting upcoming episodes and news. You can subscribe through the link in my Instagram profile or through my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Thanks for listening in and see you next time on The Boozy Art Historian!