Collector and MFA Benefactor John Axelrod talks about how he first discovered many of the works by African American artists that were later gifted to the museum and appear in this exhibition.
A master craftsman and person of color in a slave society, Thomas Day was born free to mixed-race parents in southern Virginia. He established his furniture making business in Milton, North Carolina, where he attracted customers from among the region’s white planter elite. In 1850 his shop was the largest furniture business in the state. His works, like this secretary, were rural adaptations of the fashionable Late Classical (or Empire) style of the day. But the dramatic scrolls on the front of the glass doors are a signature element of Day’s best designs.
In the Edgefield district of rural South Carolina, African Americans developed an outstanding tradition of pottery making between about 1815 and 1880. The craftsman who signed his work "Dave the Potter" is the foremost member of this group, which included both slaves and, later, freed blacks. Dave's thick-walled storage vessels are unusually monumental and made with great technical skill. He was also unique in inscribing his wares with often-amusing verse; the couplet on this pot reads: "I made this Jar for Cash- / though its called lucre trash."
Although made in the Edgefield district of South Carolina by enslaved potters who produced functional jars sold primarily to whites, these jugs were not commercial products. They are exceptionally rare examples of objects made by slaves for their own community and directly link West African practices with African American slaves. Scholars now believe that these were used for spiritual rather than practical purposes.
This is one of six Scottish subjects that Duncanson executed late in his career, probably after a trip he made to England and Scotland during the Civil War. With great detail and a subtle range of color, Duncanson depicted the aftermath of a storm and shipwreck under the looming cliff of the title. Even though in his work Duncanson, the son of biracial parents, rarely alluded directly to the trauma of the Civil War or to issues that faced African Americans, the clearing skies and upright vessel may be a reference to the end of the hostilities. This optimism is tempered by the severe landscape and still-choppy seas.
Established in 1872 as the first national park in America, Yellowstone became a popular destination for tourists in the 1880s. Courting these potential buyers, Brown distributed a brochure promising paintings with “all the truths in color of that famous locality, together with such artistic effect as will make them appreciable to all who have visited.” The first professional African American artist on the West Coast, Brown left a career as a lithographer to paint landscapes of the West and Pacific Northwest.
A freeborn African American, Bannister became an integral part of the artistic community in Providence, Rhode Island. Together with his Caucasian colleagues, he founded the Providence Art Club, and his Barbizon-inspired landscapes were purchased by both white and black patrons. Instead of the noble peasants that the Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet portrayed in his harvesting scenes, Bannister painted black workers reaping and gathering the hay, using the same loose brushwork and golden tones that he had admired in Millet's paintings.
Described as "expressive in its every stitch of a most fiery imagination," this quilt was created at the end of the nineteenth century by an African American woman, born a slave, near Athens, Georgia. The fifteen squares depict familiar biblical events and record local legends, such as the meteor shower of 1833. Narrative quilts are characteristically American, but Powers' textile is strikingly similar in design and technique to the appliqued cotton cloths made by the Fon people of Abomey in West Africa.
Tanner was captivated by North Africa, particularly the Moroccan port of Tangiers. It had long been a site of exploration for European painters interested in the exotic. Tanner may have used photographs of the architecture of Tangiers for earlier etchings and sketches, but he spent several months there in the spring of 1912, at just the moment a French government protectorate was established. During his stay he painted numerous views of the city's ancient alleys and gateways; he displayed several of his Tangiers canvases, perhaps including this street scene, in his solo exhibition at the Thurber Art Galleries in Chicago in 1913.
Above, artist Robert Freeman discusses Motley's painting.
Motley was one of the first artists to portray the urban life of his fellow African Americans in Chicago. His aim was to "express the American Negro honestly and sincerely, neither to add nor detract," regardless of the activity. Here, a group of elegantly-dressed women enjoy a round of drinks -- during Prohibition, when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal. Notice the painting of monks on the wall behind them, contrasting the women's conviviality and suggesting themes of restraint and morality.
Johnson, an African-American artist working in Paris, saw painter Chaim Soutine’s first major exhibition in 1927. He was immediately drawn to Soutine’s wild, gestural expressionist work and began to absorb his style. Johnson made this contorted street scene in Cagnes-sur-Mer, an artists’ colony where Soutine had worked for several years. Studying Soutine’s style helped Johnson release his own emotional reactions to his surroundings. He wrote, “I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives more character and movement to the canvas.”
In 1935 Johnson proclaimed: "It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip, that characteristic hair, bearing and manner. I wish to show that beauty no so much to the white man as to the Negro himself." Yet, as the son of a Swedish man and a mixed Cherokee and African American woman living in San Francisco, Johnson had little access to the "pure American Negro" that he wished to represent. His exploration led him to traditional West African art. He borrowed formal elements of African carvings, such as ritualistic masks, to confer dignity, pride, and cultural heritage to typical African American physical characteristics.
Limiting himself almost entirely to gray, white, and black, Pippin shows a country doctor’s nighttime journey in winter. The grandson of slaves, Pippin was entirely self-taught as an artist, his desire to go to art school having been thwarted by a World War I injury that crippled his right arm. Even so, he achieved artistic—and eventually commercial—success, rendering astonishing effects despite a painfully slow and laborious painting process.
As the MFA celebrated its centennial year in 1970, this work became the museum's first painting by an African American artist to enter the collection.
Above NCAAA Director Barry Gaither talks about local Boston artist, Allan Crite.
Raised in Boston, Crite often painted scenes of life in the city’s South End. Here, children play, lining up to jump over a rolling tire. Crite had a special relationship with this spot, the otherwise ordinary corner of Dilworth and Northampton Streets:“I lived over that store for forty-six years. I looked out that window, down Northampton Street towards Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Church . . . Dilworth Street was an important phase in my life, where much of my major work as an artist was produced. . . . Today the street no longer exists. It is a vacant lot. The street is a memory, along with all the other vanished streets of the city.”
The life and career of Augusta Savage epitomize the struggle, sacrifice and resolve of many African American artists during the 1920s-30s, a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. After defying her family to pursue her artistic career in New York, Savage gained national recognition when she was denied a scholarship to train in France on the basis not of her talents but of her race. The controversy brought her powerful new friends, who ultimately helped Savage win a two-year Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris. Upon her return to Harlem in 1932, she devoted herself to advancing the possibilities for African American artists through teaching and mentoring.
Delaney first studied art in Boston, but in 1929, he moved to New York, settling in 1936 at 181 Greene Street. His Greene Street subjects mark the beginning of a movement toward an increasingly abstract approach to his cityscapes, and of those, this image is one of the most experimental. It indicates his beginnings as a sign painter; he has distilled the essence of the street to shapes with vigorous outlines and repeating concentric forms that energize the composition. Delaney, with his friend and fellow painter Stuart Davis, shared a love of jazz and something of the music's rhythm is made visible in the color and shape relationships of Greene Street. In their work, they found a comparable abstracted reality with which to capture the vibrancy of New York City.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem, Charles Alston traveled to the American South to document African American life. Touring rural areas in 1938 with Giles Herbert, a Farm Security Administration inspector, Alston had access to the homes of black families, whom he photographed as inspirations for future artwork. The paintings that emerged from this experience reflect both formal artistic concerns with composition, color, and balance, and social attention to representations of the black family. The strength and unity of the black family are quietly conveyed through this group portrait, where Alston has rendered the figures in simple shapes that reflect a more abstract approach to form.
Above Lane Curator Karen Haas talks about the recent MFA exhibition on Gordon Parks.
Gordon Parks came to realize early on the power the camera could wield as a weapon in the fight against prejudice and discrimination. As the first African American photographer at Life magazine, Gordon Parks set out in 1950 to write and photographically document a story on segregated education as seen through the lives of his classmates from the all-black elementary school they had attended in small-town Kansas. Among others, Parks found his friend, Pauline Terry, and her husband living in Detroit, and his powerful portrait of the couple walking to church reinforces the seriousness of their faith.
Dos Santos’ work makes references to both Afro Brazilian and Catholic beliefs, but in many instances his sculptures simply represent what they are: a child, a head, or a seated figure. This work could be seen as an example of the latter, but the artist may also be alluding to the messenger god Exú, an orixá (or deity) of the Candomblé religion often depicted smoking a pipe. Dos Santos does not draw on one specific culture, however, and his sculptures were created solely as works of art, not as ceremonial objects.
Today associated with Carnaval, the pre-Lenten street festival, samba originated in the communities of enslaved Afro Brazilians in the late 19th century and combines music, poetry, and choreography. Dos Prazeres, a pioneering composer of samba music, turned to painting in the 1930s and largely based his lively, rhythmic works on this experience. Here he likely depicts the Samba de Roda, performed after a ceremony in the Candomblé religion, which is a polytheistic faith based on African gods and brought to Brazil by slaves.
Born in Cuba to Jamaican parents, Smith moved with his family to New York and there became a leading pioneer in the American studio jewelry movement. He was one of a handful of black students admitted to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the 1940s, and he apprenticed in the ship of a Harlem jeweler, Winifred Mason. He later described Mason's shop as "a little Bauhaus," an informal salon where black intellectuals and artists gathered to share conversation. Through this experience, Smith was involved with a wide network of African American visual and performing artists, many of whom became his clients.
The séance plays a major role in the Umbanda religion. Leal was a pai-de-santo, a priest in the faith, and the ritual he depicted here may have been based on both observation and experience. The seated individual at the right undergoes an intense psychic experience, locking eyes with the white-suited man, probably the priest and facilitator of the interaction. Leal’s image emphasizes the spiritual over the material through transfixed gazes and gravity defying hair that help to convey the presence of an other-worldly being.
With its subtle contrasts between opaque and nearly transparent areas of paint and its “allover” composition, this work epitomizes Lewis’s elegant response to Abstract Expressionism. The painting tells no explicit story, but the clusters of marks can be read as small figures that may hint at questions about individuals, groups, and the relationships between them. This interpretation would be in keeping with Lewis’s career and approach to art: in the 1930s he was part of Harlem’s 306 Group, which encouraged emerging African American artists, and in 1963 he helped found Spiral, an artists’ discussion group dedicated to the civil rights movement.
Valentim worked in a geometrically abstract style, yet his compositions also drew on imagery from the Candomblé religion. Within a grid-like framework the artist has placed the abstracted shapes of three attributes associated with Candomblé orixás or deities: the staff of Oxalá, god of the sky and universe; the trident of Exú, the messenger god of communication and way-finding; and the double-headed axe of Xangô, the warrior god of thunder and fire. Some critics have claimed this appropriation of religious symbols was out of context, but for Valentim, the Candomblé references are personal and part of his heritage.
Kofi Bailey was deeply involved in the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s that aimed to gain social freedom and equality of African Americans. Closely associated with civil rights luminaries, Bailey used his art to express both his frustration with the present and his hopes for the future. Bailey's painting of George Jackson, a vociferous equal rights activist, effectively communicates both Jackson's anger and his intense desire to spread his beliefs to help create a fair society.
Auxiliadora da Silva captures the vibrant life of Brazil’s largest city just as the skies have opened up over a neighborhood, possibly her own. A keen observer with a great sense of narrative, she included individuals with a range of skin tones in a variety of dress indicative of the country’s diverse classes and ethnic heritage. The carefully wrought composition draws on the self-taught artist's earlier experience as a seamstress in the vivid patterns of color, as well as in the tiny details on clothing and the designs on the car tires that resemble stitching. The result has a rich physical and visual texture, much like embroidery.
“[I] worked with what's around me,” Cortor said, “though sometimes I reach back for something out of my memory.” In this monumental still life, an abundance of worn objects transmits layers of memories, not only of the artist’s personal history, but also the shared experiences of black America throughout the early 20th century. The items depicted refer both to triumphs and to failures, from the successful business empire of Madame C.J. Walker to the racial injustice of the 1932 Scottsboro trial. Painted at the height of his powers, Still-Life: Past Revisited shows the fifty-seven-year-old artist looking back on his life as a black man in America.
Using beads as her medium of choice, Joyce Scott creates polemical assemblages of well-known imagery and stereotypes to address controversial topics like sexism and racism. Descended from at least three generations of quilters, woodworkers, and other artisans, she celebrates the improvisational "make-do" qualities of African American arts. In this necklace, Scott is concerned with the Old Testament creation story, questioning the meaning society has attributed to the protagonists’ gender roles. Scott asks her viewer: “Does my work deserve perusal because it cools your anger with humor or because it fans the flames?”
Ligon's paintings present quotes that expose the dangers of speaking simplistically about African American identity in art and life. The text here features words spoken by James Baldwin (1924-1987) in an interview late in his life. Baldwin states the difficulties and restrictions faced by African American artists who feel obliged to create "an official version of the black experience" for the white cultural establishment. Ligon's skinny canvas makes it difficult to read, and seems to be a metaphor for the limitations of communication.
Supermodel is emblematic of Marshall's earliest exploration into his now iconic super-black figure. Inspired by Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, in the 1980s Marshall started developing larger-than-life images of black figures in an effort to challenge stereotypical depictions of black people as continually enslaved. The painting is a soft nod to high fashion and celebrity, but the centrality of the figure and the supreme contrast between his black skin and the light background also call to mind traditional religious icon painting. These two facets shed light on just how wide Marshall has cast his net of influence, culling everything that he imagines could be used to reposition the black image from one of poverty to one of strength and power.
Puryear is known for shape-shifting, hand-hewn forms that evoke ideas of deliverance. Constructed of wire mesh, tar, and wood, Confessional reveals his interest in the transcendent potential of common materials. Here the title suggests a secret or sacred interior space, like a Catholic confessional, where sins of the mind, body, and soul are laid bare. Does its hollowness seem heavy or uplifting, damning or saving? The artist deliberately seeks this ambiguity: “The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in a tense coexistence.”
The caricatured and stylized figures in Walker's provocative tableaux evoke racial stereotypes in acts that are perplexing, violent, and suggestive. The zones of shameful and uncomfortable relationships-both literal and fantastic-force the viewer to consider issues of race and sexuality. Although the figures are detailed, their forms and the narrative remain essentially ambiguous. For the artist, the silhouette was a near-perfect solution to her effort to "try and uncover the often subtle and uncomfortable ways racism, and racist and sexist stereotypes, influence and script our everyday lives."
Iago's Mirror reflects Shakespeare's Othello, the story of a black Muslim military commander who is tragically undone by his soldier Iago's racist manipulations. Here, Wilson represents Iago's duplicitous double-dealings, desire for recognition, and evil nature by reimagining the concept of a Venetian mirror. Working with Murano glassmakers, he reverses tradition by painting the glass's flip side black rather than silver, and deepens the darkness with multiple layers. The result is an ominous portrait of an iconic villain.
Soon after arriving in New York in 2001, the painter Kehinde Wiley came across a discarded FBI wanted poster that triggered a seismic shift in his thinking about portraiture. Wiley found the standard mug shot of an African American youth especially compelling, because its straight, uninflected style was such a contrast to the portraits of European aristocracy that he had been drawn to since childhood. As a result, Wiley began a series of large-scale canvases of young men that he encountered on the streets of Harlem (and photographed in the studio) in poses and settings appropriated from Old Masters' works.
Cover: Beauford Delaney, Greene Street, 1940. Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator.
1. Thomas Day, Secretary, 1841. Mahogany veneer, mahogany, maple; pine, yellow poplar. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
2. Dave Drake (or Dave the Potter), Storage jar, 1857. Stoneware with alkaline glaze. Harriet Otis Cruft Fund and Otis Norcross Fund.
3. Unknown African-American, Face jug, about 1860. Stoneware, alkaline (ash) glaze; kaolin clay inserts. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
4. Robert S. Duncanson, Dog’s Head of Scotland, 1870. Oil on canvas, Emily L. Ainsley Fund.
5. Grafton Tyler Brown, A Yellowstone Geyser, 1887. Oil on canvas. Emily L. Ainsley Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
6. Edward Mitchell Bannister, Workers in the Fields, about 1890. Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
7. Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik.
8. Henry Ossawa Turner, Street Scene, Tangiers, about 1912. Oil on panel. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
9. William H. Johnson, Cagnes-sur-Mer, 1928-29. Oil on canvas mounted on board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
10. Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask, about 1934. Copper and enamel. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
11. Horace Pippin, Country Doctor (Night Call), 1935. Oil on canvas. A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund.
12. Allan Rohan Crite, Tire Jumping in Front of the Window, 1936-47. Oil on canvasboard. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Reproduced with permission.
13. Augusta Christine (Fells) Savage, Portrait Head of John Henry, about 1940. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.
14. Beauford Delaney, Greene Street, 1940. Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator.
15. Charles Alston, Family Group, about 1950. Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
16. Gordon Parks, Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Gift of The Gordon Parks Foundation. Copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.
17. Agnaldo Manoel Dos Santos, Homem com Cachimbo e Chapéu (Man with a Pipe and Hat), 1950s. Wood. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.
18. Heitor dos Prazeres, Roda de Samba (Samba Circle), 1957. Oil on particle board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.
19. Art Smith, “Galaxy” neckpiece, about 1960. Silver. The Daphne Farago Collection. Reproduced with permission.
20. Paulo Pedro Leal, Sessão Espirita (Séance), about 1960. Oil on cardboard mounted on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.
21. Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1960-64. Oil on canvas. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
22. Rubem Valentim, Pintura 1(Painting 1), 1964. Tempera on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.
23. Kofi Bailey, George Jackson, 1971. Acrylic on board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection.
24. Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Chuva Sobre São Paulo (Rain over São Paulo), 1971. Poil and mixed media on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.
25. Eldzier Cortor, Still-Life: Past Revisited, 1973. Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. *Courtesy of the Estate of Eldzier Cortor and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY.
26. Joyce J. Scott, Adam and Eve, 1985. Glass beads. The Daphne Farago Collection. Reproduced with permission.
27. Glenn Ligon, Untitled (James Bladwin), 1990. Oil on canvas. Seth K. Sweetser Fund. © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
28. Kerry James Marshall, Supermodel, 1994. Acrylic and mixed media on board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
29. Martin Puryear, Confessional, 1996-2000. Wire mesh, staples, nails, steel rods, tar, various woods. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Ives Family Fund, Towles Contemporary Art Fund, Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser Fund, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, Joyce Linde, Carol Wall, and partial gift of Mickey Cartin. © Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.
30. Kara Walker, The Rich Soil Down There, 2002. Cut paper and adhesive on painted wall. Museum purchase with funds donated by members of the 2004–2005 Contemporary Art Visiting Committee: Audrey and Jim Foster, Barbara Lee Endowment for Contemporary Art by Women, Robert and Jane Burke, Henry and Lois Foster Contemporary Purchase Fund, Ann and Graham Gund, Elizabeth and Woody Ives, Joyce and Edward Linde, JoAnn McGrath, Davis and Carol Noble, John and Amy Berylson, Lorraine and Alan Bressler, Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser, Robert and Esta Epstein, The Fine Family Foundation, Sandra and Gerald Fineberg, Eloise and Arthur Hodges, Ellen and Robert Jaffe, Richard and Nancy Lubin, Susan W. Paine, Elizabeth and Samuel Thorne, Gail and Ernst von Metzsch, Stephen and Dorothy Weber, Rhonda and Michael Zinner, Karin and David Chamberlain, Marlene and David Persky, Ann Beha and Robert Radloff, Jan Colombi and Jay Reeg, Marcia Kamentsky, Alexandra and Max Metral, Joan Margot Smith, Marvin and Ann Collier, Jerry Scally, Martin and Deborah Hale, Katherine R. Kirk, Allison D. Salke, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Robert and Bettye Freeman, Joan and Michael Salke, and Lois B. Torf. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
31. Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009. Murano glass, plywood, metal pins. John and Ernestine Payne Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Fred Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery.
32. Kehinde Wiley, John, 1st Baron Byron, 2013. Oil on canvas. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection and funds donated by Stephen Borkowski in honor of Jason Collins. © Kehinde Wiley Studio