As an art history nerd, and occasional art maker, I have always been interested in how much of our aesthetic history has been reduced to secondary, or accessory, limited to servitude and entertainment, or restricted to artifacts stolen from home and place on display, now considered priceless upon their displacement. Despite abundant examples of racism in art, many historical figures chose to elevate the human form in black and brown stone, allowing me and other black “artsy” kids all over the country to think critically about the 3 dimensional black human form.
Often, a sculptor’s choice of medium is more about luxury, desired finish, durability or artistic license, than accurate depictions of skin tone. In more ways than one, art can work on its own standards of representation, many times complicating how we see and understand the freedoms found in the art making process. Stone choice in traditional sculpting techniques predates and transcends modern conceptualizations of race, while existing in a professional realm very familiar with racism. Even before the eighteenth century anthropological obsession with race distinctions and categorizations, society had many race values set in place, enabling the possibility for deeper meaning to almost all visual representations of ourselves.
With the specified lived experiences, often inseparable histories, and underrepresentation that comes with racism, there is an undeniable importance placed on non-western visibility in the art world. Today, seeing a black figure in white stone is as visually intriguing as seeing a figure with European features in black stone. This juxtaposition allows us to imagine all the ways we can three dimensionally recreate our realities. It’s time to acknowledge a fact that artists and colonialists alike have long ago implied, there is some warm and inviting about brown. It’s a color that both attracts and surrounds. The clash or conversation between medium and naturally warm tones proves fundamentally interesting, achieving that warmth with stone, a kind of mastery.
If we’ve learned one thing from Twitter activism and the current climate of media accountability, it’s that representation matters. After a 2015 visit the Art Institute of Chicago, College of Social Work graduate student, Oladoyin Okunoren recalls, “being there and kind of thinking that all the other pieces were cool until I got to that one and I thought it was amazing. To this day I can’t tell you what I saw that day other than the bust. I even took pictures. I thought it was raw because the moment I saw it I knew she was African or someone of African descent. I think I was kinda uninterested in the other stuff after I saw that... I searched for more ‘African’ or ‘black’ arts”.
You don’t have to go far to form an opinion. Krannert Art Museum currently has a set of sculptures on display. Despite their copper tone, there are some tell-tale signs that don’t speak to the African figures, particularly, the woman’s somewhat cowering stance compared to the man’s hopeful confidence but also hair texture and facial features. Despite interesting gender politics, the sculpture is lovely to look at. The warmth of the brown, the lights and the shadows of the figures feel familiar. This familiarity gives the mind room to wonder about the possibilities; flowing dreads, full lips the confident stance of a black woman that cant be told shit. Something about 3D, and its possibilities instill hope or anticipation in young black art consumers.
Black sculpting pioneer Augusta Savage once said, "I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work." (Metropolitan Magazine, Jan. 1935, n.p.) Thanks to the work of seminal black contemporary artists like Harlem Renaissance pace setters like Savage and Richmond Barthé, we have skillfully introduced intriguing approaches the three dimensional human form. Walking down the beaten path of black artists before us, lets not stop at reimagining existing portrayals of European figures, as it limits our experiences or artistic legacy (as subjects and content creators) to a comparison to whiteness. Because so many of our realities, experiences, triumphs and values of aesthetic worth, exist outside of whiteness this would be a misrepresentation at best. This is a call for any sculptors out there on his wave to please keep doing your thing. I’d love to see how many figures you can create.
If you know of any black sculptors (at any level, students, working artists, etc.) mention them in the comments or link us to them via twitter or ig- We’d hate to miss our beat.