Black History Month: Prominent Artists

Kerry-Ann Holleyman, October 8, 2019

An Annual Celebration

October marks Black History Month in the UK; a yearly commemoration of the accomplishments, contributions and history of black people around the world. Throughout this month, many will be observing and celebrating the achievements of black people both in the present and throughout history. In this post, Alchemy will be looking at highly esteemed black artists and their key artworks.

Augusta Savage, 1892 – 1962

Augusta Savage has been described as one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance and is credited as an influential civil rights activist and artistic leader. Savage began her artistic career at a very early age when she began sculpting small figures from natural clay found in her hometown of Florida. She spent much of her spare time perfecting her art, sometimes skipping school in order to commit to her newfound passion.

After moving to New York and joining the Cooper Union based in Manhattan, Savage was presented with the opportunity to apply to a prestigious summer programme to study art in France. Pitted as a favourite to be accepted into the course, Savage was understandably devastated to learn she had been rejected on the grounds of her race. This devasting experience ultimately motivated Savage’s leading involvement in civil rights and equal opportunities for black people.

Savage soon became globally recognised in the art world as an extremely talented sculptor and trailblazed the Harlem artistic renaissance and emergence of African American Artists in 1930s – 1940s America. Following the Wall Street Crash and in the midst of the Great Depression, Savage established her own Studio of Arts and Crafts in 1932 and became the first black artist to be admitted to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

Key artworks include Gamin, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp) and Sculptural interpretation of Negro Music.

James Van Der Zee, 1886 – 1983

Born in Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee was an established photographer known for his images depicting African-American life and celebrity. Van Der Zees passion for photography began at an early age when he became his high school photographer. Many family members and friends recognised his talent and it came as no surprise when in 1916, after working as a dark room assistant, James opened his own photography studio in Harlem, named Guarantee Photo.

Van Der Zee is recognised for his photographs depicting African American celebrities including Florence Mills and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., alongside his commercial work covering wedding and funeral photography. He established a clear narrative to his images by using props and lights alongside his subjects. He also adopted unique darkroom manipulation methods to project special effects into his images. One notable example is his 1920 image “Future Expectations” depicting a bride and groom on their wedding day with the ghostly apparition of a child stood between them.

Van Der Zee suffered financial difficulty in the early 1970s and was forced to sign away the rights of more than 50,000 of his images. Esteemed art gallery owner Donna Mussenden helped Van Der Zee back on his feet by arranging public appearances, and he was soon hailed as a highly sought-after celebrity photographer. He filed a suit to reclaim many of his image rights from the Studio of Harlem, but unfortunately passed away before the case was settled in 1983. He was posthumously returned half of his images, with the other half awarded to the artistic institute which now bears his name. 

Alongside many other accolades, he was awarded a Living Legacy Award by US President Jimmy Carter.

Faith Ringgold, 1930 – Present

Known for her series of political posters depicting the civil rights movement, and elaborate African-style masks, Faith Ringgold is a currently one of the most celebrated living black artists.  Although currently working as a successful children’s book illustrator, many of her prominent artwork rose to fame and popularity during the 1970s and 1980s during her integration into the New York art scene.  

Born in Harlem in 1930, Faith suffered from poor health as a child and spent much of her childhood in the company of her mother; a fashion designer who encouraged her creativity. From a young age, Faith exhibited a flair for working with fabrics – something which is clear from much of her 1980s artworks consisting of beautiful, multicoloured quilts.

Ringgold created her most landmark pieces in the early 1960s – a series of paintings entitled American People, depicting many themes surrounding the racial tension of the civil rights movement. Many of her pieces focused on the female perspective of the issues – something which had not been touched on by any other artist at the time. Key paintings from the pieces included ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ and ‘Neighbors, Die’.

The types of artistic media utilised by Ringgold are exceptionally extensive and varied. She visited West Africa during two trips in both 1976 and 1977. These experiences had a huge impact on her work, in particular; mask making, sculptures and doll painting. Other media used by the artist includes performance art and children’s books.

Past and Present

These three prominent black artists, amongst notable others, have paved the way not only for black artists to follow in their footsteps, they have also impacted and continue to influence civil rights activism throughout the decades. Ultimately, Black History Month (celebrated annually throughout October in the UK, and February in the United States), is as lively and vivid in the present day as it was when it was first conceived of by Carter G. Woodson back in the 1920s – and we look forward to witnessing the future developments of this essential celebration.

Written by Kerry-Ann Holleyman - Team Assistant at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd.

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