4 Black Women Artists Who Painted a Picture of Strength in the Midst of Injustice
African American women artists have helped shape art in America for many years, but their contributions were often overlooked. The perception that art is created by white men started to change in the 20th century and continues to change even more in the 21st century. Modern audiences are hungry for voices from different cultures and backgrounds, and the four female artists that we showcase in this blog do not disappoint. Their beautiful art delights us, and their life stories inspire us. These groundbreaking women changed the face of art while working hard to make a living in their chosen fields.
#1. Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)
Elizabeth Catlett was a sculptor and printmaker. She lived in the U.S. and Mexico. She moved to Mexico partly because the U.S. government around the time of the Cold War made life difficult for progressive artists, intellectuals, and activists. In fact, in 1962, the U.S. State Department barred her from returning to the states because of her leftist political affiliations.
Catlett worked in many media including lithograph and linocut printmaking, and stone, terra-cotta, bronze, and wood sculpture. Throughout her long career, Catlett used her art to advocate for social change in both the U.S. and Mexico. Much of her work focused on the experience of African American life and political struggle during the middle of the 20th century. Her posters of well-known activists, including Angela Davis and Malcolm X, were widely circulated at the time.
Catlett’s 1968 wood sculpture, Black Unity, shows the raised fist that became a powerful symbol of the Black Power movement. The work is featured in the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, which is traveling around the United States after the Tate Modern organized it in 2017.
Catlett was born in Washington D.C. in 1915. Both her mother and father were the children of freed slaves. Her mother worked as a truant officer in Washington D.C.’s public schools. Her father, who died before she was born, was a professor of mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute. Catlett’s mother often talked to her about the hardships her students faced living in the slums of D.C. Catlett also listened to her grandmothers who told her stories about slavery. These maternal narratives shaped Catlett’s work and artistic vision.
In 1935 Catlett earned her Bachelor of Science in Art, cum laude, from Howard University. She then went to Iowa to study painting with Grant Wood, although she became more interested in sculpture during her time there. In 1940 she received the first Master of Fine Arts degree earned in sculpture at the University of Iowa.
In 1946, Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship to travel to Mexico and study. The fellowship was renewed in 1947. In Mexico, she joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop) in Mexico City, a workshop dedicated to prints promoting leftist social causes. There she met her second husband, Francisco Mora, a printmaker and muralist. They got married and remained artistic and life partners until Mora’s death in 2002.
At the Taller de Gráfica Popular, Catlett learned the art of linoleum cut prints (linocut), which the workshop considered important because of its power to reach a large audience. The linocut technique can produce inexpensive prints in quantity. Her famous 1952 Sharecropper is a linocut print that portrays the dignity and beauty of a hardworking female sharecropper, while also calling attention to the unfairness of the sharecropping system in which a farm worker pays rent with a part of the crop that they harvest for the land owner.
Catlett’s Domestic Worker lithograph also shows a powerful, hardworking woman whose enigmatic expression makes us wonder if she is exhausted from working all day with the broom and cleaning rag in her hands.
In 1971 Catlett was featured in a one-woman exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The U.S. government granted her a temporary visa to attend the exhibition, her first visit to the U.S. in 10 years. After this, she visited the U.S. frequently to work on commissions and to receive awards. Her reputation grew and many major exhibitions highlighted her work. She continued to live and work in Mexico until she passed away in 2012 at her home in Cuernavaca at age 96.
#2. Alma Thomas (1891-1978)
Alma Thomas explored the power of color and form in her luminous, abstract paintings. Her paintings make our eyes dance with their patterns, rhythm, and jazzy hues. As a black woman artist, Thomas faced barriers that her white counterparts didn’t encounter. However, she didn’t let this stop her and she didn’t accept any labels that were placed on her as a “black woman artist.” She chose not to paint racial or feminist themes, and instead used her unique talent for colorful compositions.
In the 1960s, when many of her contemporaries were making political art to protest racism, Thomas wrote, “The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” (The Smithsonian, Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001, Box 2, Folder 7.)
Her Watusi painting shows the joy of a Watusi dance while emulating Matisse’s The Snail, a work that Matisse created in his later years from colored pieces of paper. Thomas’ painting is named after a dance that was popular in the 1960s and a song that Chubby Checker released in 1963. In the painting, Thomas rotates Matisse’s version and plays with the colors, using colors from the opposite side of the color wheel. Always interested in color theory, Thomas, though less known than her male counterparts, spins the color wheel with the best of them.
Thomas taught art in the public schools of Washington D.C. for 36 years. She wasn’t recognized as a professional artist until after she retired in her late 60s and had more time to work on her art. Despite this long delay, at 81, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. In that same year she also had an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Today, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an extensive collection of her works.
Thomas was a trailblazer. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts in 1924 from Howard University, becoming the first graduate from the university’s Fine Arts program, and also one of the first African American women to earn an art degree. While teaching in Washington D.C., she also earned her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University in New York, and attended American University in Washington D.C., where she first began experimenting in the Color Field genre.
Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of four daughters. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a dress designer. In 1907, when Thomas was fifteen years old, her father moved the family to Washington D.C. to escape racial violence in Georgia and to seek the benefits of the public school system of Washington. Although still segregated, the nation’s capital was known to offer more opportunities for African Americans than other cities.
After teaching for 36 years, she started working full-time on the wonderful watercolors, oils, and acrylics that feature her vibrant colors and staccato brushstrokes. During the artist’s final years, the crippling effects of arthritis prevented her from painting as often as she wanted. She died on February 24, 1978, still living in the house that her father had bought in Washington D.C. in 1907.
During the Obama administration, Michelle and Barack Obama chose some of Thomas’ paintings to decorate the White House, making her the first African American woman to have her artwork hanging in public areas of the White House.
#3. Rose Piper (1917-2005)
Rose Piper is best known for her blues-inspired work. She had her first major solo exhibition, titled Blues and Negro Folk Songs, in 1947 at the Roko Gallery in New York. At the time, she was one of only four African American artists who had exhibited abstract work in New York. In 1948, her work was also included in the prestigious Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Prints by Negro Artists at Atlanta University. Fellow exhibitors included Jacob Lawrence and Hale Woodruff.
Slow Down, Freight Train was painted in 1946 or 1947. The title references Freight Train Blues, a recording by Trixie Smith, and refers to the sadness of women who were left behind by men who hopped freight trains to the North during the Great Migration.
Rose Piper was born in New York in 1917 and grew up in the Bronx. Her father was a public schoolteacher who taught Latin and Greek. She studied art and geometry at Hunter College. After graduating in 1940, she attended the Art Students League of New York.
Rose Piper shares a few things in common with Elizabeth Catlett and Alma Thomas. Like Catlett, Piper also received a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship. In fact, she received two fellowships, as did Catlett. Like Thomas, Piper didn’t want to be known as a “black artist.”
The editors of the book, The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, Graham Lock and David Murray, wrote in an interview with the Jerry Jazz Musician website:
“Rose Piper, who did some fantastic paintings in the 1940s based on blues recordings … was wary of people’s assumption that this kind of ‘black subject matter’ was all that she, as a black artist, was supposed, or even able, to do.“
When Piper received her first Rosenwald grant in 1946, she traveled to the southern states of the U.S. to study the music and culture there. Upon receiving her second Rosenwald grant in 1948, she opted to work in Paris. When she returned home, family obligations took her away from her art, and she focused on other types of work and raising her family. She had two children, a son and a daughter, and was the aunt of conceptual artist Adrian Piper.
Like Alma Thomas, Rose Piper was unable to focus on her artwork during the prime of her life. Her mid-career was interrupted by financial hardship and family obligations, leading her to put her painting on hold and to turn to other careers. She ran a greeting card company, worked as a textile designer, and raised her family. For nearly thirty years, she worked as Rose Ransier, designing knit fabrics. She returned to painting in the 1980s, creating a new and distinct body of work that references the styles of the Flemish School of painting and medieval illuminated manuscripts. Piper died of a stroke on May 11, 2005 in a Connecticut nursing home at age 87.
#4. Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017)
Painter and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu was part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She was a founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), an artists collective formed in Chicago in 1968 at the height of the Black Power movement. Other founding members included Jae Jarrell, an artist and fashion designer, and Jae’s artist husband, Wadsworth Jarrell. The artists in the collective were “bad” as in tough and confident, not inferior. Their brightly-colored, patterned art inspired other artists and enlivened the culture of the 1970s, influencing art, film, and fashion.
The Black Power movement advocated for self-determination, black pride, and unity. AfriCOBRA expressed these ideas with visually-appealing images that often embedded words in them. They sought to empower Black communities with positive messages about Black identity, style, and attitude.
Jones-Hogu’s Unite print expresses Black Power and racial pride by showing the powerful men wearing their hair in the natural Afro style, which in the 1960s became a political symbol of pride and a rejection of the idea that Blacks should assimilate into the white culture by straightening their hair. The Unite meaning comes across in a powerful way, with the men standing in unity under the repeated UNITE word, holding up their fists in the Black Power salute. The men are united in their confidence that black lives matter and that black power is an attitude of strength and pride in identity.
Like Elizabeth Catlett and Alma Thomas, Jones-Hogu studied art at Howard University. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard and then went on to get numerous other degrees. Throughout her life she was interested in education and taught at Malcolm X College in Chicago for more than three decades.
In addition to her BA from Howard, Jones-Hogu earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a Master of Fine Arts degree from the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago, and a Master’s degree in printing from Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. She later pursued a Master of Fine Arts in Independent Film and Digital Imaging at Governors State University while in her early seventies.
In her work at IIT, Jones-Hogu focused on prints that were a political indictment and critique of race relations in America. In her work with AfriCOBRA and later, Jones-Hogu sought to convey a more positive statement, “to give a message in terms of action, direction, and ideas to think about to my people as the viewer,” as she said in this interview with Never the Same.
In 1967, Jones-Hogu contributed to the Wall of Respect mural on Chicago’s South Side. The Wall of Respect was a montage of portraits of heroes and heroines of African American culture and history, painted on the side of a building on the South side of Chicago. It was one of the first collective street murals in the U.S. and revived the mural movement in neighborhoods across the country, especially Black neighborhoods. Jones-Hogu completed the theater section of the mural. Notable images on the Wall of Respect included Cicely Tyson, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aretha Franklin, and Harriet Tubman.
Jones-Hogu’s work has been featured in major group exhibitions documenting the work of African American artists during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power eras, including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, the seminal show organized by the Tate Modern in London. In January 2018 her first solo museum exhibition, “Barbara Jones-Hogu: Resist, Relate, Unite 1968-1975,” opened at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago.