In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting 10 important artists whose work is on view now at the Birmingham Museum of Art. While the Museum takes the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month in February, we are dedicated to collecting work by African and African American artists year round. Our collection includes work by artists like Kara Walker, Ebony Patterson, Hank Willis Thomas, Shinique Smith, Wilmer Wilson, and Kerry James Marshall, whose popular painting School of Beauty, School of Culture will return to the BMA with the reinstallation of the contemporary galleries in April. In the meantime, visit the BMA to check out work throughout our galleries by these important artists.
- Robert S. Duncanson, 1881- 1872
Around 1840, Robert Duncanson relocated to Cincinnati from Monroe, Michigan, to pursue a career as an artist. At that time, Cincinnati—known as the “Athens of the West”—offered a vibrant cultural environment, as well as one of the largest communities of free people of color in the country. It was also home to an active community of abolitionists, many of whom would become Duncanson’s patrons.
After a slow start, Duncanson found success when he turned his attention to landscape painting. In 1853, Duncanson traveled to Italy with two other Cincinnati artists, William Louis Sonntag and John Tait. When he returned home the following year, Duncanson began a series of romanticized landscapes based on his time in Italy. Duncanson continued to enjoy critical success, and in 1861, one critic hailed him as “the best landscape painter in the West.”
In 1863, owing to the growing racial strife stirred by the Civil War, Duncanson moved to Montreal, where he remained until after the war. In Canada, as one contemporary reviewer noted, Duncanson’s “color did not prevent his association with other artists and his entrance into good society.” The BMA’s painting A Dream of Italy is among the most significant works Duncanson painted during his exile. Given the turmoil in Duncanson’s native land at the time he painted this, it is difficult not to read A Dream of Italy as the artist’s longing for a place of peace and serenity. It is on view in the American galleries.
- Edward M. Bannister, 1826 – 1901
Born in New Brunswick, Canada, Edward Mitchell Bannister moved to New England in the 1840s, becoming an active and successful participant in the region’s artistic life, despite the adversity of racism. Of this, he once stated, “I have been sustained by an inborn love for art and accomplished all I have undertaken through the severest struggles which, while severe enough for white men, have been enhanced tenfold in my case.” His monumental painting Under the Oaks (location unknown) received first prize at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. He later described the moment when the prize committee discovered it awarded top honors to a black man, writing, “An explosion could not have made a more marked impression.”
Deeply influenced by the French Barbizon school, Bannister painted with a soft, loose touch, using a limited palette of greens, browns, and grays. He took the landscape of his adopted home of Rhode Island as his subject matter and strove to recreate the subtle effects of light and atmosphere found in nature.
His painting Tending the Ground (1886) is on view in our American galleries.
- Romare Bearden, 1911-1988
Born on September 2, 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Romare Bearden is most often recognized for his richly textured collages. His work features visual metaphors from his past and from historical, literary, religious, and musical sources.
While completing a degree in education at New York University, Bearden also studied art and was a cartoonist and art director for the monthly journal The Medley. The beginning of his success as an artist was marked with his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940 and his first solo show in Washington, D.C., in 1944. He was a prolific artist, whose works were exhibited in his lifetime throughout the country and in Europe. Bearden was also a respected writer and spokesman on art and social issues. He was appointed the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African American art advocacy group, in 1964. The artist was one of the original founders of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. He received the Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture in New York City in 1984 and the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Ronald Reagan, in 1987.
Our current exhibition Embodying Faith: Imagining Jesus Throughout the Ages, on view through April, features a beautiful painting of the annunciation by Romare Bearden.
- Magdalene Odundo (Born 1950)
Magdalene Odundo grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and moved to England in 1971 where she studied graphic art. She became interested in working in clay and returned to Africa to learn about ceramic traditions in Kenya and Nigeria. She also visited New Mexico and worked with potters in the Native American Pueblo of San Ildefonso.
Odundo was awarded the African Art Recognition Award by Detroit Institute of Arts in 2008, and the African Heritage Outstanding Achievement in the Arts award in 2012. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Services to Art in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2008.
The title of Odundo’s vessel, Mangbetu, is the name of an ethnic group living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mouth of the vessel recalls the flaring hairstyle traditionally worn by Mangbetu women. It is currently on view in the African galleries.
- Edmonia Lewis, 1844- 1907
Edmonia Lewis was America’s first internationally acclaimed non-white sculptor. The daughter of a free black man and a Chippewa Indian, Lewis was orphaned at an early age and grew up in her mother’s nomadic tribe until she was 12. Her brother left the tribe to become a gold miner in California and financed her early education. In 1859, he helped her attend Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first schools to accept female and black students. She became interested in the arts, but was forced to leave the school before graduating in 1863. Her brother encouraged her to move to Boston, where she studied with local portrait sculptor Edward Brackett and established herself as a professional artist. In 1865, Lewis moved to Rome and became involved with a group of American expatriate female sculptors. This began her career in marble. Rather than hire local workmen to carve the final pieces, as was common among sculptors, Lewis did all of her own stonework because she feared it wouldn’t be accepted as original if she did not. She created portrait heads, biblical scenes, and figural works inspired by her Native American heritage and the oppression of black people.
Her marble busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha depict the tragic lovers from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Both are on view in the Native American galleries.
- Wosene Worke Kosrof, Born 1950
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Wosene Kosrof (who goes by the professional name Wosene) received his bachelor of fine Arts degree from the School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa, and attended graduate school at Howard University in Washington D.C., where he received a master’s degree.
Wosene draws upon the culture and history of his country for the subject matter of his paintings. He believes that words (both written and spoken) and the act of writing can be sacred. Words from his native Amharic language, as well as Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, are incorporated into his works. Other influences include graffiti, and the relationship between sound, shape, and color. He is particularly inspired by improvisational jazz. His paintings are included in numerous museum collections, including the Smithsonian Museum, the Newark Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and many others. He currently lives and works in Northern California.
Wosene’s painting Words of Justice II is on view in the African galleries.
- Charles Ethan Porter, 1847-1923
Though his talent was little known in his own time, Charles Ethan Porter was rediscovered in recent years. His works are now recognized as masterpieces of American still life painting.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Porter was one of the first African Americans to exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York. In the 1880s, he studied in Paris, possibly at the prestigious Académie Julian, and was influenced by the Barbizon school of landscape painters. Despite his talent and the patronage and admiration of the writer Mark Twain and the painter Frederic Edwin Church, Porter’s career seems to have suffered in large part due to the obstacles and discrimination he faced because of his race. Porter’s fruit and floral still lifes, with their textured handling of paint and soft focus on their subject matter, are celebrated by museums and art historians.
Porter’s Still Life with Fruit is on view in the American galleries.
- Clementine Hunter, 1886-1988
Self-taught artist Clementine Hunter was born just 20 years after the Civil War in the Cane River region of central Louisiana. When she was 15, her family moved to Melrose Cotton Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where she would live and work most of her life. When they arrived, the plantation was run by a woman who hosted artists from all over the country to live at Melrose as artists in residence. After New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey left behind her discarded supplies in 1939, Hunter painted her first piece on a window shade, depicting a baptism in the Cane River. She created thousands of pieces using whatever surfaces she could find, from canvas and wood to gourds and plastic milk jugs. Hunter painted from memory images that depicted life on the plantation including picking cotton in the fields, attending church on Sundays, and hanging laundry on the line. She celebrated women and what was considered women’s work in her paintings.
Hunter, who lived to 101, painted every day until her later years. She was the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art, but she wasn’t allowed to attend because of Jim Crow laws of the era. She declined an invitation from President Jimmy Carter to visit the White House during his presidency because she didn’t like to travel outside of Louisiana. Today her work is featured in many museums, including the BMA. Look for her painting Pregnant Nativity in the Embodying Faith exhibition.
- Babacar Lô, Born 1957
Babacar Lô, also known as Lô Ba, is one of the best known living glass painters in Senegal, West Africa. He was not apprenticed to a teacher, as is customary, and taught himself the art of reverse-glass painting at the age of 15. His early career was dedicated to religious themes, but he gradually added other subjects based both on history and contemporary daily life. He is particularly moved by childhood memories, and often paints scenes of older cultural traditions which are no longer practiced. Even when he is painting a landscape, Babacar Lô says he is inspired by memories from his childhood.
Several reverse-glass paintings by Babacar Lô are on view in the African galleries. Work by his son Moussa Lô, who trained with his father, is also on view.
- Charles Alston, 1907-1977
Charles Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, son of a prominent Episcopalian minister. Following his father’s death, his mother married into the Bearden family, and Charles became a cousin by marriage to Romare Bearden who remained a lifelong friend. Both families moved to New York— part of the surge of African Americans migrating to northern cities in the early decades of the 20th century—and settled in Harlem, where their mothers held salons during Harlem Renaissance. Although he made New York his home, Alston remained drawn to the south, and returned to travel through rural Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Arkansas.
Alston’s early works are figural—portraits of African American individuals or groups—at home, or at their labors. The first black supervisor for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project in New York, he became interested in public art, and was awarded several important mural commissions—one in Harlem and the other in Los Angeles.
During the 1950s, he became the first African American instructor at the Arts Students League of New York, and he began to explore abstraction. Inspired by African sculpture, and the Harlem Renaissance artists who had first turned their gaze to Africa, his paintings leading into the decade of the 1960s are more abstract and angular, with clear references to African forms.
His abstract painting Cry Beloved Country is on view in the African galleries.