Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston, TX



Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists

June 20 -- August 15, 1999


Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, featuring works by twenty-five prominent, contemporary African American women including Howardena Pindell, Betye and Alison Saar, Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, Elizabeth Catlett, Rachelle Puryear, and native Texan Jean Lacy, will be on view at the Caroline Wiess Law Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston beginning June 20, 1999 through August 15, 1999· The approximately 50 works in the exhibition, ranging from the Haitian vévé paintings of Lois Mailou Jones to the gripping contemporary photographic essays of Carrie Mae Weems, chronicle the contributions of four generations of African American women artists. Through prints, drawings, mixed-media installations, and sculpture (complimented by works from the MFAH's permanent collection), these artists explore issues of gender, ethnicity, religion, and history -- topics pertinent to all people, and to African American women in particular.

"With the presentation of Bearing Witness, the MFAH continues a tradition of bringing an enriching diversity of artwork to the people of Houston," said Dr. Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. "Furthermore, the MFAH is proud to supplement the exhibition with a number of fine works from its own growing collection of art by African American women, several of which were generous gifts of the African American Art Advisory Association, a support group of the museum. Together, these works celebrate the creative talents of African American women artists and their contributions to the art world."

Organized to commemorate the opening of the Museum of Fine Art in the Camille Hanks Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, Bearing Witness also coincides with the 115-year anniversary of Spelman, the first college in the world founded for African American women. The exhibition is coordinated in Houston by Dr. Alvia J. Wardlaw, curator of twentieth-century art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Bearing Witness " offers a unique opportunity to examine the breadth of artistic expression found in works created by these artists at the close of the twentieth century," said Dr. Wardlaw. "It is also a rare opportunity to view the works of early artists such as Lois Mailou Jones and Elizabeth Catlett, who were directly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, alongside the works of more contemporary artists such as Debra Priestly, Varnette P. Honeywood, and Charnelle Holloway, to name a few."

Drawing from, and expanding upon, the African American experience, the works in Bearing Witness document the journey of black women; revealing where they have been, where they are now, and where they are going. All of the artists identify themselves as black, female artists, and this identity is embodied in their work. Although their artistic styles and expressions vary tremendously, they are united in their attempt to deconstruct sexist and racial stereotypes through their artwork.

For many of the artists in Bearing Witness, African heritage is a recurring theme, if not an integral force, in their artwork. Through a variety of media including assemblage, construction, and acrylic painting, Varnette P. Honeywood embraces the beauty of the African spirit using vibrant colors and striking images. In The Caregiver (1995), Honeywood celebrates both the richness and complexity of black life by combining allusions to African ancestry with images of modern African American life. Charnelle Holloway, who has a deep understanding of traditional African art, also finds inspiration in her African heritage. Holloway's sculpture, Fertility Belt for the Career Woman (I995), relies on figures and symbols from African culture to inspire modern women who face the dual pressures of raising a family and maintaining a career. Toughness, devotion, and persistence are symbolized in the twistings of the belt, while the bronze symbol represents hope and aspiration. Frieda High creates a haunting reference to the past in her painting, Returning to the Door of No Return (1995). Recalling the Atlantic slave trade, this dark and lonely painting is a moving reminder of the African American struggle and survival.

Other artists in Bearing Witness place less emphasis on the past, focusing instead on their personal experiences and surroundings. Through painting, sculpture, performance, and quilt making, Faith Ringgold uses recognizable images specific to her race, class, and gender to celebrate her experiences as a black woman living in America. Freedom of Speech (1990), commissioned by the Constitution Center in Philadelphia to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, reflects Ringgold's lifelong involvement in civil rights and her dedication to feminist views. The charming creations of Amalia Amaki, including Souvenir Gaze #2 (I995) and Number 1 Fan #2 (1995), pay tribute to the people who have influenced her life and art. By adorning old photographs with buttons, beads, and simulated pearls, Amaki embraces and celebrates the traditions of African American culture.

In a world still laced with discrimination, the accomplishments of these African American women artists are truly triumphant. All of the Bearing Witness artists have had major commissions in the United States and abroad, as well as one-woman exhibitions. In addition, they have all earned graduate degrees, and many have doctorates. Combining their artistic pursuits with careers as professors, curators, and writers, among other professions, they are role models for future generations. Clearly, visual arts have played a significant role in the intellectual and creative development of these women, and their works will continue to enrich the lives and minds of others.

Dr. Jontyle Robinson, associate professor of Art History at Spelman College and curator of Bearing Witness states in the catalogue, "Despite over three hundred years of racial, sexual, and economic oppression, black women continue to demonstrate that their creative talents will not be suppressed...and they, like the exhibition itself, are creative acts of resistance and empowerment."

Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, is accompanied by an illustrated, 176-page full-color catalogue with a foreword by Maya Angelou and essays by Lowery Stokes Sims, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Judith Wilson, and Johnnetta Betsch Cole. The catalogue is jointly published by Spelman College and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., and is available for purchase at the MFAH bookstore.

Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists is toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national division of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, and the Texas Commission on the Arts. Additional support is provided by the H&R Block Foundation, the Cooper Foundation, Richard Florsheim Art Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe. Mid-America Arts Alliance is a private, nonprofit arts organization assisted by its six partner state arts agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts, and private contributors.

Images from top to bottom: Charnelle Holloway, Fertility Belt for the Career Woman , I995, Repoussé akua ba doll, sterling silver, bronze, mixed media, courtesy of the artist; Jean Lacy, Noah (Bert Williams/Bill "Bojangles" Robinson), 1986, animated music box, collection of Mani Jasiri Short and Alvia Wardlaw; Betye Saar, Watching, 1995, mixed media on metal, 13 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist, photo by Steve Peck; Varnette P. Honeywood, The Caregiver, 1995, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist; Beverly Buchanan, Blue Lightning, 1995, oil pastel on paper, courtesy of Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, New York City, photo by Adam Reich.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.