Women Of Colour Who Have Changed The World Through Their Art
Many black female artists have made an impact on how people understand black culture and its contribution to western society. However, there are so many unsung heroines, talented artists and activists that sadly, you may never have heard of because of the invisibility that black female artists have to contend with, even today.
The women I have chosen to highlight in this article are leading women, but not in the modern sense. They lead as pioneers and change-makers who have challenged, fought for justice and changed perceptions of society through their persistence and determination, paving the way for younger generations.
These women have achieved respect and admiration for their art practices, activism and bodies of work, despite the backdrop of racial and gender discrimination. They have persistently refused to be ignored, marginalised or pigeonholed by their identities. By exploring their own selves, their cultures and the pursuit of equality they have educated the world around them about the beauty and tragedy of their cultural histories. Most importantly, they have earned recognition for the achievements of black women as artists, storytellers and preservers of historical record.
Faith Ringgold was born and raised in New York in the 1930’s. Her father was a minister and her mother a fashion designer. Although America was in the middle of the Great Depression, the Harlem Renaissance of the in the last twenty years meant Faith was raised in a time of huge radical change for the black American community. Her neighbourhood had long been a hot bed for creativity and political activism and her neighbours often hosted famous artists and writers such as W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Dinah Washington and Duke Ellington. Faith was shielded from the horrors of segregation in the Southern states and to some extent the economic inequalities outside of Harlem at the time, but she was surrounded by inspirational people and intellectual conversation.
It was no surprise that she enrolled in the all white, all male City College, where women were not admitted to study art. She didn’t take no for an answer, instead enrolling in its School of Education, majoring in art to side step the rule book. Her eyes were opened to a solid foundation in art but an incomplete one that taught her nothing about black art history. Inspired by the shape, colour and geometric forms of Picasso and Matisse but curious for more, she also became interested in African sculpture and looked to Jacob Lawrence and the writings of the important black social critics, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, for stimulus and ideas outside of college.
‘No other creative field is as closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing that I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.’
However, after studying, she found it almost impossible to get gallery representation. Being told by a gallery owner in 1963 that she ‘can’t do that’ was a very important turning point because she realised she had a responsibility to herself to tell her own story as a black woman. This inspired her first two series of work, American People and the Black Light series. American People was a searingly honest confrontation of racial relations in America during the civil rights movement and has shaped the rest of her incredible body of work. Faith had to persist and believe in the value of her contribution as an artist as her work was largely ignored at the time. Even though in the 1960’s everything was political, it was not art like hers. She felt she was an outsider in the art world, but she was still very involved in political activism, protesting at the Whitney Museum’s 1968 sculpture exhibition that didn’t include one single black artist.
‘I became a feminist because I wanted to help my daughters, other women and myself aspire to something more than a place behind a good man.’
Feminism, has remained a key part of her artistic identity. Her 1972 Slave Rape series explored the fate of female slaves as property, visualising her feminist beliefs. This also marked a change in direction and the beginning of her use of silk frames, made by hand with her mother after being inspired by the Tibetan ‘thangkas’ she saw in the Rijksmuseum. That led to her soft sculptures and the quilted stories (an Africa American tradition) combining images and hand written stories that she is most commonly known for.
Faith also felt strongly that she needed to support other female black artists and women in the prison system. She installed her mural, For the Women’s House for the women in Riker’s island prison in 1971 after doing a residency there to give women hope and something to strive for. Through the myriad of associations she co-founded and supported throughout her career, such as the Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, National Black Feminist Organisation, she has helped elevate other women striving for a voice and visibility in the art world.
In a career spanning 70 years, Faith Ringgold has even become an award winning author when her work Tar Beach was made into a book. However, her legacy is how she showed the lives of Africa American people, their perspectives and identities through her art, making racial and gender based oppression visible and by fighting against injustices as a feminist and a dedicated social activist and supporter of the arts and artists.
Lubaina Himid is a British artist born in Zanzibar in 1954. After the sudden death of her father, when she was a few months old, she was bought by her mother, a textile designer, to England.
Lubaina studied Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art and got her masters from the Royal College of Art in London. Like Faith Ringgold, from a young age, she did everything she could to increase the visibility of the work and stories of black artists. Her own work has often centred on reclaiming identities and exploring the cultural history and journeys of the Afro/Caribbean diaspora and their contribution to European culture. She also regularly explores belonging and although her work is often optimistic in tone, there is also a sense of longing.
‘When I first started making art, I was like a lot of black artists at the time – we were simply trying to make ourselves visible. We were visible in the street but we weren’t on the television or the newspapers or media at all.’
As a pioneer of the 1980’s black art scene in the UK, she was one of a group of young artists that included Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers and Claudette Johnson who formed the influential BLK Art Group, seeking to empower young black artists and to raise issues of race and discrimination. All the members were the children of African or Caribbean migrants raised predominantly in the industrial West Midlands and many, including Lubaina, went on to be associated with the Black Arts Movement, which was promoted by cultural theorist and political activist Stuart Hall.
They were successful in breaking down the barriers that stopped black artists being exhibited in large exhibition spaces, opening up dialogues around race, culture and identity in institutions. A key moment for the group was the 1989 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London for a group art exhibition called The Other Story, highlighting the marginalisation of black artists and communities in the western world.
Although her work was less prominent in the 1990’s and 2000’s, she has worked as a professor of contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire for many years and since 1983 has been curating group exhibitions to highlight the work of prominent black artists. Lubaina has always been concerned with placing black British artists in their rightful place and context so their stories and work is respected and seen.
Her work is now going through somewhat of a renaissance, not only because her pieces are still incredibly relevant to today’s society, such as Naming the Money and The Carrot Piece, but also because of several very well deserved achievements. Being awarded an MBE for ‘services to black women’s art’ in 2010 was followed by becoming the first black woman to win the Turner Prize, Britain’s most famous art award, in 2017, and then being awarded an OBE for ‘services to art’ in 2018. She serves on several boards including the Arts Council of England.
‘It’s been quite difficult to just talk about the work,’ she says. ‘We talk about the politics, the history, the sociology of it all but not a lot of time has been spent by writers and critics discussing the stuff itself, and I think that’s sort of missing.’
Lubaina is still determined to question, provoke and explore prejudices and imbalances in society, always fighting for a new cause, such as critical recognition for the art work created by black artists, which would mean a step forward for visibility and representation. Her long-term project with the Guardian newspaper, Negative Positives, highlighting daily prejudice in the liberal press, shows her unwavering commitment to activism and the incredible thought processes and avenues she explores as an artist and activist.
Gloria Petyarre is an aboriginal artist, born in 1942, from the Anmatyerre community in Utopia, 270 km north of Alice Springs. She comes from an area that has produced several notable Aboriginal artists, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Unlike Faith Ringgold and Lubaina Himid, she did not attend art school and only started making art when she joined the Utopia Women’s Silk Batik Group in 1977. She initially referenced ceremonial body paint designs (awelye) in her work before she rose to significance as an artist in her own right when, after ten years, she developed a different style of abstract work using acrylic paint. These focused on big leaf abstract paintings of the Kurrajong tree found in the Australian landscape and used by Aboriginals for its medicinal properties.
Story by: Sam Allen, Arts Engagement Specialist, UK