Explore Your Museum at Home – BIPOC Artists in Their Own Words

For twenty-eight days in June 2020, the Cincinnati Art Museum responded to the murder of George Floyd by sharing art from our collection on our social media accounts by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). We selected works by artists whose art speak to issues of social justice and which call for social change. Included here are a selection of those works accompanied by a quote from each artist.

Redemptive Mask (2000/2000) by Thom E. ShawCincinnati Art Museum

Thom Shaw’s (1947-2010) artwork portrays, without filters, the worst sides of a society in which the artist lived and of which he had direct experience. Black and white woodcut prints bring to life the social consequences of racial segregation, the struggle for equal rights and its contradictions, and political unrest.

But Shaw was also hopeful. He states, “I hope… that people can become part of the solution and not the problem. I enjoy working in black and white because of its starkness and the contrast it represents. There is no room for gray, life is a series of black and white events, and therefore it becomes an eyebrow-raiser.”

Quote from: Taft Museum of Art, Duncanson Artist-In-Residence Program Website

Untitled (Malcolm X with Newspaper) (1963) by Gordon ParksCincinnati Art Museum

Gordon Parks, a world-renowned photojournalist and filmmaker, is known for becoming the first African American photographer for Vogue and Life Magazines. His iconic photography focused on issues of race, poverty, and civil rights for African Americans from the 1940s through the 1970s. Parks states, “I suffered first as a child from discrimination, poverty ... So I think it was a natural follow from that that I should use my camera to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves.”

In this image, Parks depicts the famous African American Muslim and human rights activist Malcolm X. Malcolm X is best known for his leadership and racial advocacy during the Civil Rights movement.

Soundsuit (2009) by Nick CaveCincinnati Art Museum

“The form is really a hybrid, bringing together a number of ideas. The impetus for the work came out of the Rodney King incident in 1992 . . . I started to think about what it feels like to be discarded and dismissed—about the implications of that, and the materials that provoked that. So the first soundsuit was constructed entirely out of twigs. I was making a sculpture first—I didn't even think I could physically put this on—but once it was developed I . . . moved around in it, and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest. In order to be heard you have to speak louder. . . . It made me think more, again, about my role and civic responsibility as an artist. It brought me to this level of consciousness that is very prevalent in my work today.” —Nick Cave

Quote from: Andrew M. Goldstein, “Nick Cave on the Galloping Success of His "Heard NY" Performance,” Art Space, April 2, 2013

The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face (1991) by Margo HumphreyCincinnati Art Museum

Margo Humphrey is a renowned teacher, artist and printmaker. Her work often explores issues of race and feminism. Humphrey’s work in lithography is particularly groundbreaking. The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face is a powerful personal narrative, expressed in intense color, imagery and written text, reading:

'It was in the spring of 79 that she first flew to NYC to see art. The angels kept her safe. She met a man in Chicago, they became lovers. Her lover made a bad move. For balance; her mom and dad dead. The ladder of life is a mystery. Her twins were born in 82. She went through the fire and the rain. TESTED. SURVIVED. Like the devil himself had taken over, but you see, not so. Her faith kept her strong, and she longed to be free. She had no choice but to dig in deep for a chance to make it happen. So she rose to the occasion screaming all the way. And fighting. MH 1989/1990'

Quote from print, The History of He Life Written Across Her Face.

Fruits and Vegetables (1959) by Jacob LawrenceCincinnati Art Museum

While in his twenties, Jacob Lawrence exploded into the American art scene with his epic painting series depicting African American heroes—Toussaint L’Ouverture (41 panels), Frederick Douglass (32 panels), and Harriet Tubman (31 panels)—and works focused on the move of families from the rural south to northern cities (the Migration series, 60 panels). Lawrence’s career brought national attention to African American experiences during war and civil rights movements. Fruits and Vegetables dates to a period when Lawrence was painting scenes showing people going about their normal lives as positive depictions to humanize African American life.

Untitled (Women with Friends) (1990) by Carrie Mae WeemsCincinnati Art Museum

The Kitchen Table Series is composed of twenty posed photographs and fourteen text panels that together tell the story of a relationship and its aftermath from the perspective of an African American woman. Weems plays her own protagonist in the photographs, tracing a range of experience from desire to anger to a self-possessed sense of womanhood -- through a matrilineal story of which she is the author.

“At the end of the day, it has a great deal to do with the breadth of the humanity of African-Americans who are usually stereotyped and narrowly defined and often viewed as a social problem. I’m thinking that it’s not about social problems, that it’s about social constructions. The work has to do with an attempt to reposition and reimagine the possibility of women and the possibility of people of color, and to that extent it has to do with what I always call unrequited love.” 

–Carrie Mae Weems, from an interview with James Estrin for Lens (NYT blog), September 2013

Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky (1851) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky, is the first visual representation of African American artist Robert S. Duncanson’s attitudes toward slavery. The 1851 painting is based on a daguerreotype, known only through a print in Graham’s Magazine of 1848. Duncanson’s richly detailed picture interjects features that were not included in the original print. The print depicts the rural, slave-holding state of Kentucky in the foreground, with a white man leaning on a rifle directing two children to notice a black man with a scythe. In the painting, the white man is replaced by an African American enslaved man holding the scythe. He and the black woman hanging laundry depict tasks associated with their labors as enslaved people.
This scene contrasts to a great extent with that of Cincinnati in the background. Depicting the booming city with its numerous churches, smokestacks, and riverboats, Duncanson presents a startling comparison between the two locales. It becomes apparent when viewing this scene that the economic prosperity and freedom represented by the city across the river are what the enslaved man and woman desire—unattainable yet seemingly within reach.

Sunday Promenade (1931/1946) by Hale WoodruffCincinnati Art Museum

Artist and educator, Hale Woodruff believed that "it's very important to keep your artistic level at the highest possible range of development and yet make your work convey a telling quality in terms of what we are as people." It was a philosophy that Woodruff lived by and one that he passed on to his students at Atlanta University.
Sunday Promenade is part of a series of linoleum cut prints from the series, Hale Woodruff: Selections from the Atlanta Period 1931–1946. In these works, Woodruff captures black themes related to his adopted home of Georgia. In the September 21, 1942, issue of Time, Woodruff, stated, "We are interested in expressing the South as a field, as a territory, its peculiar run-down landscape, its social and economic problem of the Negro people."

Bertha Mae (2012) by Willie ColeCincinnati Art Museum

“The thing I am pushing against is my own self-limitations. I recognize that labeling is part of marketing. But if you look at most of my work outside of steam irons it’s not about race or growing up in the ghetto of New Jersey. I am exploring greater things than that. I’ve been post-black since the 1960’s. We are black and making art but that shouldn’t be a label. We should be artists until it’s important to say that we are black. I want people to see my art as art. America has this fascination with the other and wanting to label the other. They’ve categorized to control the world and the way we see the world and our symbols of beauty. From1955 to 1968 I was very unattractive because black awareness hadn’t kicked in yet. I had a big nose, nappy hair and big eyes. But after 1968 I was suddenly a handsome brother. I was born colored then I became a Negro, then Afro-American, then black and then African American. They all had to with how other people saw black people.”

Quote from: Souleo, “Upcycled: A Conversation With Willie Cole.” Hyperallergic, May 1, 2013

Protest Platter (2020) by Terence Hammonds, designer, Breakfront Pottery, manufactory, and Wave Pool (est. 2014), affiliationCincinnati Art Museum

Cincinnati artist Terence Hammonds creates work, often print-based, that provokes dialogue about history, race, activism and change. This platter is part of an editioned set designed by Hammonds and created in collaboration with Breakfront Pottery and local refugee and immigrant artists of The Welcome Project of Wave Pool Gallery. Hammonds selected images of protest from across history, representing movements related to the environment, civil rights, gay liberation, women’s rights and immigrant’s rights, all issues that continue to affect our communities. “I chose images of people that were holding signs that were in first person and had the appearance of coming from a deeply personal space,” he explains. “I like to think of the platters as maybe having the reverse function of a ‘mammy jar.’ Whereas ‘mammy jars’ would reiterate racist stereotypes in subtle innocuous ways, I wanted the platters to remind us of the social struggles and the people who fought for change, and [who] empower us to keep up that fight in our daily lives.”

(Quote: Correspondence with the artist, June 2020)

Lost Boys (2008) by Alison SaarCincinnati Art Museum

Alison Saar is an internationally acclaimed sculptress whose work addresses humanity in the broadest sense, delving into universal themes. Lost Boys of Sudan of 2008 revisits one of her three-dimensional sculptures from 2001 of 13 bronze-cast shoe soles suspended from strips of red fabric nailed into the wall. More than 27,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Ranging in age from 7 to 17, the boys were forced to flee to international relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, often without shoes.
Quote: Gary Brewer ”I Wanted to Make Art that Told a Story”: Alison Saar on Her Eloquent Sculptures.” Hyperallergic, May 1, 2018 https://hyperallergic.com/440597/i-wanted-to-make-art-that-told-a-story-alison-saar-on-her-eloquent-sculptures/

Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats (2005) by Kara Elizabeth WalkerCincinnati Art Museum

Kara Walker’s print series Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) superimposes her hallmark caricatured silhouettes over scenes of the war first published in 1866. Here, an enslaved woman tries to escape while behind her a crowd of Union supporters rush in the opposite direction to welcome northern ships. Walker’s work speaks directly to our country’s history of racism, yet her meaning is ambiguous, requiring the viewer to investigate, to engage – to do the work ourselves.

“I’m not a historian or a social scientist; to be an artist is to fictionalize. Making work that connects to Gone with the Wind or The Clansman is a matter of weaving fictions around other fictions—trying, by subversive means, to approach another truth.” - Kara Walker, interview with Steel Stillman for Art in America, April 23, 2011 (https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/kara-walker-2-62878/)

Satisfied Man (2015) by Kerry James MarshallCincinnati Art Museum

“It has become clear to me that few images circulate in art of self-satisfied Black subjects. No trauma, no anxiety, not stoic, not an image of dignity, just satisfied.”
- Kerry James Marshall

By portraying a smiling man, in a direct, unaffected pose, Marshall addresses what he calls a “crisis of under-representation” of Black people in art, past and present. Black subjects depicted in common emotional states are at the heart of much of his work, where they embody everyday feelings, states of mind, and actions that would be unremarkable if they did not in fact construct so much of our shared humanity. That such depictions are few compared with those that stereotype, idealize, or otherwise tokenize Black subjects is a cultural manifestation of systemic racism that Marshall seeks to redress. “I’m trying to create a certain kind of normalcy; a kind of everyday-ness, a commonplace-ness – a sense of simple presence.”

The artist’s use of woodcut, with its angular style and sharp contrast, harkens back to German Expressionist printmakers of the early 20th century like Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, whose works meditated upon stark and universal themes of the human condition, in strongly emotional terms, often in response to the horrors of World War I. Marshall brings this evocative medium into the era of Black Lives Matter.

Artist’s quotes from the print publisher’s website (https://ludion.be/en/prints/satisfied-man) and a 2019 interview with Gabriel Coxhead in Apollo Magazine (https://www.apollo-magazine.com/kerry-james-marshall-interview/)

Harlem Playboy, New York (1937) by James Van Der ZeeCincinnati Art Museum

James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) was a successful photographer during the 1920’s and 30’s in Harlem, New York City, and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance saw an explosion of black art, music, and culture in the early 20th century and is considered a significant moment in African American history. During this time, Van Der Zee photographed prominent African American celebrities such as Marcus Garvey, the early 20th century black activist; Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous black entertainer and dancer; and Countee Cullen, the renowned black poet. He also photographed ordinary African American citizens through the lens of compassion and dignity. Later in life, Van Der Zee was awarded six honorary doctorates and was honored by President Jimmy Carter.

Phillis Wheatley (1973) by Elizabeth CatlettCincinnati Art Museum

Empowerment is a central theme of Elizabeth Catlett’s portrait of the eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley. Abducted from her homeland in West Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery as a young child. She embraced the education that her enslaver in Boston provided, was a published author by age twenty, and eventually gained her freedom. Catlett surely identified with the poet, whose pose denotes the power and space to think and create. Catlett sought to inspire people to their fullest potential through her work: “Art for me must develop from a necessity within my people. It must answer a question, or wake somebody up, or give a shove in the right direction—our liberation.”

HeVi, Oslo (2016) by Zanele MuholiCincinnati Art Museum

“My practice as a visual activist looks at black resistance—existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGBTQIA and gender-nonconforming individuals making sure we exist in the visual archive. […] The series [Somnyama Ngonyama] touches on beauty and relates to historical incidents, giving affirmation to those who doubt whenever they speak to themselves, whenever they look in the mirror, to say, ‘You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you—because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.’” –Zanele Muholi, interview by Renée Mussai for Aperture, September 11, 2018

Zanele Muholi’s ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama consists of self-portraits of the artist made in hotels and other transient locations as they travel around the world for their work. Borrowing from established visual traditions of fashion photography, black and white portraiture, and ethnographic imagery, Muholi intends the pictures as both a celebration and a confrontation. The pictures meet the eye with fierce beauty and determination at the same time as they broach the ways photographic images of black women have historically silenced, exoticized, sexualized, or otherwise stereotyped their subjects. In HeVi, Oslo, elegant simplicity of composition forces our attention to hair, skin, pose, and gaze.

Quote from: https://aperture.org/blog/muholi-interview/

Wall Piece 3644 (1997) by Therman StatomCincinnati Art Museum

“Using something as a catalyst that is autobiographical and making something into something more interesting intrigues me.” –Therman Statom

Statom is best known for his assemblages of plate glass, blown glass, wood, paint and other materials. His works in this mode include large, site-specific installations, wall pieces, and three-dimensional sculptures that often take the form of houses, chairs, and ladders (all icons associated with power and position). Within these works, Statom weaves clues about his own personal story and journey. In recent years, the artist has used art-making as a basis for workshops and mentorships within communities to create dialogue, build kinship and affect social change. “I feel that art is a tool for empowerment and education. It’s also a viable tool to investigate positive change and engage a culture through the use of exploration.”

(Quote: thermanstatom.com)

Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket (Pittsburgh Memories) (1978) by Romare BeardenCincinnati Art Museum

Growing up amid the black creative community of the Harlem Renaissance supplied Romare Bearden with role models and engaged him in the conversation about what African American artists could do to inspire and make positive change. In both his visual art and writings, Bearden sought to dismantle the demeaning stereotypes of African Americans ubiquitous in the mass media. His 1934 article, “The Negro Artist in Modern Art,” educated the public about the neglected artistic contributions of African Americans, a subject upon which he expanded in subsequent publications.

In Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket (Pittsburgh Memories) of 1978, Bearden reflected on his experiences as a teenager at his grandmother’s boarding house, where he met men who had fled from the Jim Crow South to do perilous work in the northern steel mills. This collage inspired August Wilson’s play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which Wilson originally titled after Bearden’s work. The playwright explained,
It was a boarding house scene, and I began to wonder who one of the figures was, a man sitting at a table with his hat and a coat in this posture that I call abject defeat. He eventually became the character Harold Loomis. I was intrigued, and I started by writing a short story called “The Matter of Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket,” and 12 pages into the story I thought maybe I should write a play. Then I discovered the song called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” that W. C. Handy did about the slave hunter. And the two things came together, the song and the painting, and fueled what I wanted to say about the separation and dispersal of blacks.

Joe Brown, “Staging the Black Experience; Playwright August Wilson and the Persistence of Vision,” Washington Post, October 4, 1987, F1.

Untitled (2003) by Mark BradfordCincinnati Art Museum

“At the end of the day, I'm an artist. I may make work and decide to do something political, but it will come out of an artist's position. It won't come out of society telling me I have to. If I do, it's because I choose, as an artist, to do it.”
Mark Bradford grew up in a working-class, single-parent home in an all-white suburb in Santa Monica, California. As a teenager, he and his mother moved to South Central Los Angeles, where he witnessed first-hand police brutality and racial turmoil. The difference between his childhood neighborhood and that of his adolescence shaped his worldview and artistic interests. Much of Bradford’s work reflects on the struggles of race and poverty by marrying fine art techniques with the visual material of pop culture.

Slavery Time (1965/1970) by Elijah PierceCincinnati Art Museum

This bas-relief recounts stories Elijah Pierce’s father told his son about his experiences when he was enslaved. Beginning in the upper left and moving clockwise, the narrative moves from enslaved people working in a cotton field to emancipated men tilling their own land. Among the foremost self-taught relief-carvers of the twentieth century, Pierce grew up in Mississippi and settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he opened a barbershop that doubled as an art gallery in which he displayed pieces that depicted a range of subjects from biblical stories, slavery, and civil rights. “My carvings look nice, but if they don’t have a story behind them, what’s the use of them? Every piece of work I carve is a message, a sermon.”

Harriet (1975) by Elizabeth CatlettCincinnati Art Museum

Elizabeth Catlett has said that the purpose of her art is to "present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy." Whether through sculpture or printmaking, the artist uses her work to advance causes of particular interest to her, including the Black experience and the difficulties of the lower classes. Many of her works show the multidimensional facets of women as mothers, workers, and activists. She is also inspired by celebrated African American historical figures. In "Harriet," Catlett captures the strength and heroism of Harriet Tubman as she leads enslaved men and women to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Preparing Rice with Mortar and Pestle (1984) by Aminah Brenda Lynn RobinsonCincinnati Art Museum

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1940. Through her work, she explores aspects of identity and concepts of place. Though Robinson creates strong ties with the Columbus community, the strength of her work has expanded well beyond a local audience. This sculpture explores the artist’s connection with Sapelo Island in Georgia and her ancestors there, who brought the traditions of preparing rice in this fashion from Africa to Georgia as enslaved laborers. Through explorations of materials and meaningful personal content, Robinson’s work is both compelling and challenging.

I VS I (21st Century) by Terence HammondsCincinnati Art Museum

“I think a lot of the work is just monuments to my personal heroes. A lot of them are brown, but not all of them. A lot of it is fighting for change for the greater good, even when that means personal sacrifice.” – Terence Hammonds in Cincinnati Magazine, January 21, 2019
At first glance, this monochromatic screenprint by Cincinnati printmaker Terence Hammonds mimics ornate, floral wallpaper of the Victorian era. However, Hammonds subverts the genteel aesthetic by inserting iconic images of the 1970s and ‘80s punk music into the flower blossoms, including cartoons based on Shawn Kerri’s dancing “Skank Kid” and photos of members of the band Bad Brains during their raucous concerts. The print’s title references an album and song by the Bad Brains, “I Against I.” The band, whose members are Rastafarian, emphasizes in the lyrics the selfishness of an individualistic society that directly opposes the Rastafarian concept of “I and I,” meaning oneness.

“As a kid, I was informed by punk rock, so I’ve always been looking for the outsider, searching different subcultures and looking for the Black outsider in that culture.” – Terence Hammonds, 2014, State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
(Quotes: https://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/features/terence-hammonds-is-cincinnatis-printmaker-to-the-stars/; https://stateoftheart.crystalbridges.org/blog/project/terence-hammonds/)

Wigs (Portfolio) (1994) by Lorna Simpson, printmakerCincinnati Art Museum

Wigs (Portfolio) is a collection of twenty-one hairpieces, depicting a variety of hairstyles from braids to blonde curls printed on felt. Simpson’s work often explores and makes statements about the discrimination and stereotypes surrounding African American hairstyles.

“For me, the specter of race looms so large because this is a culture where using the black figure takes on very particular meanings, even stereotypes,” Simpson has said. “But, if I were a white artist using Caucasian models, then the work would be read as completely universalist. It would be construed differently. I try to get viewers to realize … that it is all a matter of surfaces and façades.”

Alexander S. Thomas (Late 1850-Early 1860s) by James Presley BallCincinnati Art Museum

James Presley Ball opened his Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West on New Year's Day, 1851 at 28 West 4th Street, Cincinnati. His portrait studio quickly achieved national renown. Frederick Douglass’ Paper heralded Ball’s fine daguerreotypes, his thriving black-owned business, and the outstanding atmosphere he created in his studio (articles published April 28 and May 5, 1854). Serving black and white patrons across socioeconomic positions, Ball’s gallery welcomed visitors in an elegant room decorated with his photographs and oil paintings by Cincinnati artist Robert S. Duncanson.

Here Ball depicts his brother-in-law and fellow photographer, Alexander S. Thomas. This portrait – an image given and taken by early practitioners of the photographic medium – demonstrates the camera’s power as a tool for self-representation by black Americans.

All the Flowers Are for Me (Red) (2016) by Anila Quayyum AghaCincinnati Art Museum

“I want to thank the Cincinnati Art Museum for the opportunity to add my voice to this historic moment. These days I’m often brought to tears of anguish, as a witness to both the deeply painful history of racism in the United States and the world at large, and the continuing injustices meted out to large groups of people based on skin color and economics. Concurrently, I’m also witnessing the pandemic related loss of life climbing into 100s of thousands, largely impacting people of color. Having lived both in Pakistan and the United states I have a deep realization that, regardless of color of skin, gender identity, or religious affiliation, striving for justice is a lonely road full of hardship. With the current protests taking place in the US I am hopeful, too, that real change will occur to ensure all people have recourse to justice and hope. I hope at this time, my artwork All The Flowers Are For Me (Red) will bring a sense of peace and calm, creating a space for community, inclusivity and friendship, allowing us to begin the healing process and come together as a country.

This installation reflects upon the complexities of love, losses, and gains that I have experienced over the span of my life. It also attests to losses endured by people across the world due to oppression, wars, and censorship, such as Black Lives Matter protests which we are currently witnessing. This project was borne due to a personal loss, which for me connected on a larger level: the communal sense of loss experienced by people ravaged by racism and economics, war and displacement. The work also reflects the joys and gains I have experienced and creates connection to the many people who have received second chances through succor and resettlement in new lands. Even though they will always carry a sense of loss.

Adorned with delicate, cutout patterns, the steel form of All The Flowers Are For Me (Red) appears fragile, although the material is resilient, hardy, even stubborn in nature – just like humans. The audience’s presence is essential to experiencing a shared space while simultaneously affording intimacy, suggestive of the fluidity of human interactions. The shadows cast in all directions by the light spilling through the sculpture’s cutout surfaces create dynamic transformations in the space through the itinerant movement of the audience. The installation magnifies the sculpture’s floral and geometric motifs to inhabit a large space, covering and beautifying all within it. Through this installation my goal was, and is, to explore the binaries of public and private, light and shadow, static and dynamic, by relying on the purity and inner symmetry of geometric design. All the while exploring the dynamic and ever expansive nature of spirituality and meaningful connections within humanity.” - Anila Quayyum Agha, 26 June 2020

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