Posts tagged art
African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 - 1917

My name is Cynthia Hawkins, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Department of  Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The title of my dissertation which I will soon defend is African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 to 1917. My interests are rooted in interdisciplinarity and include 19th century American, and African American history, African American art, museum history and function, race, gender, critical theory, visual art, and culture. Currently, I am the Gallery Director and Curator at SUNY Geneseo.

I  focus my research on how the visual arts have performed as an agency bearing for African Americans during the long 19th century. Of the four cases, studies I examine how student William H. Sheppard was inspired by the curiosity room's art and artifact collection at Hampton Normal School to, as the first African American Southern Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, purchase Bakuba art and donate it to the Normal school's collection. I then asses the ways it was used by the faculty to enable agency in their black students providing a meaningful historical and contemporaneous connection to Africa. The remaining chapters focus on artist Charlotte "Lottie" Wilson  (1854-1914) and  her work as art superintendent for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick (1877 – 1968), and the Warrick Tableau (3/4 life size diorama) installation created for the Negro Building at 1907 Jamestown Ter-centennial, and still life and landscape painter Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – 1923). Each of these artists created works of art that the African American public found not only aesthetically pleasing, their works of art also encouraged others, regardless of difficulties, to pursue their own goals. 

To define agency in relation to the fine art object and its reference to capacity, intellectual acuity, and evidence of culture and status,  is a particular challenge because agency is, and has been generally of critical importance in Africa American life. Of interest too is Wilson's sense of her market. By working in a variety of genres, from painting portraits of well-known individuals who were important to African Americans to landscapes and still life painting she, "Lottie Wilson the artist"  (as the press frequently referred to her) ensured a ready audience. 

This dissertation has sparked new research interest, African American participation in the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention Institute Fairs, (1808-1983). Another is based on Charles Ethan Porter's tenure in New York City after he completed his studies at the National Academy of Design. From 1872 until 1880 Porter lived in Chelsea a New York City neighborhood which was to a great extent was multiracial. This finding has led to my interest in black life post-Civil War through to World War I, and this summer's research will culminate in a course I will teach in the fall.

- Cynthia Hawkins

Diasporic Threads: Black Women’s Artistic Practice and Presence

My name is Sharbreon Plummer and I am a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University in the Department of Arts Administration Education and Policy.  My work unites multiple areas of interest, including but not limited to: craft, art and social justice, African American art, arts-based research, and Black feminism(s).

As a Black woman, art researcher and practitioner, fiber work and textiles have always piqued my interest, both from the perspective of being a maker and a person reared in the South–a region that has a troubled relationship with the cultivation and exploitation of fiber-related materials such as cotton, indigo, etc. Even with its complex narratives, it is my belief that fiber serves as a conduit for commemoration and reflection of the human experience. When analyzing this medium, I often found myself frustrated with the lack of representation of Black women artists and other artists of color within craft/art histories. So often, I would see fiber art, along with its impact and implications, being discussed primarily through a white, feminist voice. Thus, I felt compelled to investigate the need for Black women’s voices to lead the charge of restorying the analysis and interpretation of fiber work and its connections to our history.

I am dedicated to using my research to contribute to a platform that builds solidarity within a community of artists and women whose work holds relevance in modern society and has continued to serve as an act of resistance, cultural preservation, self-determination and freedom of expression. Within my research, I pose the question: What language and new knowledge emerges when using fiber-based work to explore our shared consciousness and experiences as Black women? Using a Black feminist lens, I am not only critiquing art history and education’s lack of recognition of our ways of knowing and being, but also experimenting with the development of resources and artwork that repositions us within those fields in an equitable way.

One aspect of my research that I’m most excited about is being able to immerse myself in the exploration of the “transdisciplinarity” of Black women. The artists that I’ve been building dialogue with are “janes of all trades” within their own right. From an aerospace engineer turned quilter, to a lawyer that is also an herbalist, artist and educator, these women are the embodiment of the Black female creativity that was (and still is) needed in a world that was not created to nurture and support us. When theorizing about artmaking practices, I would like to see scholars’ conversations and texts shift to be more inclusive of the nuanced narratives that inform what we create. It is my hope that the interviews I conduct can offer a significant contribution to that area. 

Through my preliminary fieldwork, I’ve been introduced to Black women who use contemporary quilting as a means of healing and crafting holistic approaches to wellness. Building on ancestral knowledge and traditions, they develop quilts that can house plants, herbs, and stones to support the promotion of healing for members of their communities that are facing health challenges. These sorts of stories are ones that I feel are so important when combating the Eurocentrism and hegemony of the art world. They emphasize the influence of kinship and community within artistic production, and the beauty of the impact African diasporic practices on material and visual culture.