Black Women in Art | Carla Maria Verdino-Sullwold | Scene4 Magazine | November 2021 | www.scene4.com

Black Women in Art:
Bowdoin College Museum Explores
 Three Centuries of Representation

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

In a  stunning new exhibition drawn from the museum's own collection and borrowed works, the Bowdoin College Museum displays more than three centuries of  paintings, sculpture, and works on paper which feature representations of black women or have been produced by black female artists. Arranged thematically,  There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art covers a wide range of perspectives, highlighting the changes that have occurred from the 18th century to the present and advocating for the changes that must yet come.

Curator Elizabeth S. Humphrey aptly observes that works about and by black women artists make up less than one percent of the Bowdoin College Museum's permanent collection – a statistic that is woefully reflected across the country.  The works in this exhibit eloquently make the case that this is a practice that must change.




Arranged thematically in six sections, the exhibition is housed in two galleries.  Each section showcases a range of art from 18th century to the present and by artists in America, Africa and the African diaspora.  "Patterns of Visibility," the first theme, focuses on how and why black women have been depicted as they have been through the years.  The older works, in particular, reflect the 18th and 19th century emphasis on portraiture and raise the issues of who is "worthy" of a portrait.   William Matthew Prior's 1843 portrait of Mrs. Nancy Lawson offers a rare example of a depiction of a black woman with the same iconography as typical portraits of white women of the period.  Mrs. Lawson is well-dressed and hold a book signifying her educated status.  A free black woman married to a successful merchant, she and her husband William belonged to the Millerite religious movement which advocated for equality among races and genders.




Other striking works in this section include the anonymous 1864 photograph of Sojourner Truth, which she used as a visiting card; Harlem Renaissance artist Augusta Savage's Gamin, a sensitive sculpture of a young boy; and Maine native David Driscoll's Benin Woman III, which consciously combines mask iconography with a more human side to the countenance, giving a monumental and mythical quality to the work.




The second theme, "Classical Beauty" examines representation of the black female body throughout the centuries.  The earlier examples tend to romanticize the women or treat the subjects as ideals rather than individuals.  A beautiful white marble 1850 sculpture entitled Africa by American sculptor Randolph Rogers, depicts a seated young woman, bare chested, wearing an elephant headdress, gold hoop earrings and holding a bountiful cornucopia. Her features suggest they were modeled from life from a model of African descent; her expression is thoughtful and highly individualistic, and she exudes an air of serenity and harmony that suggests at once the classical ideal refashioned in more modern terms.

A series of 1940s William Witt photographs depict black women nudes in urban interiors.  Several focus on the body alone, such as the reclining back view in Sleeping Nude, which erases any individuality from the image. These are in sharp contrast to Barkley L. Hendricks' 1975 image of a half nude figure, entitled Sister Lucas.  Posed against a plain blue background, she stands hand on hip, confident, almost defiant – an image that celebrates the "Black is Beautiful" movement.




The third thematic grouping depicts "the women who have always worked – in their homes and the homes of others, in fields, factories, shops, stores, and offices" (Alice Kessler).  These mostly photographic images of women in the labor force record the  often grueling lives led by black working women.  There are some poignant images taken during the Great Depression which document the poverty and hardship of the subjects, such as Arthur Rothstein's Gees' Bend, Alambama 1937 which depicts young Artelia Bendolph staring forlornly out the window of a primitive log cabin, or the various images of Black women working as wet nurses and nannies to white children such the the image of Squirming White Child and Black Child Nanny, where the "nanny" is little more than a young teen.




The fourth section, "Documented Histories," features works from the 1960s onward that reveal more personalized insights into the existence of the sitters.   William Lovell's crayon and found objects series, the artist combines symbolism with a detailed individuality to make a striking image in which a woman's head in profile sits atop  a shooting gallery target, suggesting the violence to which African-Americans have been subjected. Several photographs document black women participating in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, paying testament to the diversity of the protesters.  Another series by Danny Lyon documents women activists in the Civil Rights Movement, and a more personal image, Grandma Ruby and JC in Her Kitchen by LaToya Ruby Frazier gives voice to the idea that a family history can be documented in art.

The fifth grouping showcases contemporary works with a variety of approaches.  The styles range from realism to abstraction, the materials from photography, silkscreen, etching, acrylics, and collages of found objects. Eye-catching among these are Carrie Mae Weems photograph of a still life of salt and pepper shakers representing Mammy and Sambo – racist stereotypes of enslaved African-Americans. Thomas's bold print of a reclining; Kara Walker's cut paper silhouettes, notably African-American that shows  a semi-nude woman helplessly falling through a white void in what the artist calls " your essentialist token slave maiden in mid-air."  Mickalene Thomas' reclining Black woman nods to Titan, Manet, and Matisse in the pose and bold exotic color and pattern of her dress, but the sitter's direct gaze and sense of self-possession make this one of the most liberating images in the exhibit.


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The final cluster pays tribute to influential literature with the standout work being Kara Walker's illustrations for the children's pop-up book, Freedom: A Fable, which follows the thoughts and actions of a newly emancipated Black woman who is embarking for Liberia.


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The goal of this exhibition is to integrate marginalized artists and histories into main stream art history discourse and public awareness.  Not only does the collection examine depictions of black women within the framework of traditional iconography and artistic themes, but it seeks to reveal how main stream art trends have often imposed a racist or stereotypical look at the subjects and how black artists have been forced throughout the history of art to strip away these European-white American perspectives to find a more authentic truth. That the exhibition juxtaposes both conventional depictions of black women and more radical and challenging viewpoints of black female identity is what gives it such layered nuance.  Artist Lorraine O'Grady sums it up aptly when she says, "To name ourselves, we must first see ourselves. For some of us this will not be easy. So long unmirrored in our true selves, we may have forgotten how we look….And we – I speak only for black women here – have barely begun to articulate your life experience."

Curator Elizabeth S. Humphrey concurs, stating her goal: "It is my hope that this exhibition with its attention to historical representations and its insertion of their artistic voices, will make space for black women in art and advocate for their permanent inclusion going forward."

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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2021 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
 ©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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