Art Is a Family Affair: Relatives Working in Visual Art
By Shantay Robinson
Artistry runs through the veins of many individuals and sometimes it runs in the family. Art practices can often be solitary endeavors. Artists lock themselves in studios for hours on end, often staying away from their families for extended periods of time. But when it is hereditary, those who share their passions have been known to work together. Instead of embarking on their own journeys, family members can share art as a practice, support one another, and pass on their wealth of knowledge, struggle, and rewards. This list identifies father and sons, mothers and daughters, siblings, cousins, and other relations who share their appetites for art with one another. The younger art practitioners have been inspired by the journeys of their elders and they’ve shared in building long lasting legacies that will not be forgotten.
George and Jumaane N’Namdi
George N’Namdi started collecting art as a college student eventually amassing a significant collection. He would go on to earn a doctorate in psychology and open the N’Namdi Gallery in Detroit in 1982. From the 1980s through the 1990s, N’Namdi expanded his business, moving his gallery to an art center in a Detroit suburb and opening a location in Chicago run by his son, Jumaane. In 2012, Jumaane opened an additional location in Miami located in the Wynwood Arts District. Today, George is the founder and director of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit, a 16,000 square foot building with three exhibition spaces, theatrical space, and space for musical performances. The center hosts art classes, studio spaces for artists-in-residence, and a vegetarian restaurant and wine bar. It also houses the Arthur Primus Collection of 200 years of African American art which travels three to five times a year and serves as an education experience for the public. Collectively the galleries have been known to exhibit and offer the work of Al Loving, Richard Hunt, Romare Bearden and Robert Colescott. N’Namdi gallery is one of the early collectors of African American art and exists within the pantheon of such collectors as Walter O. Evans, Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. and the Rubell Family Collection.
Betye, Lezley, & Alison Saar
Known for her work in assemblage, Betye Saar has made an indelible mark on the artworld with works that speak honestly about the experiences of African Americans. Most known for The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, an assemblage that features the likeness of Aunt Jemima with a shot gun in her hand instead of a broom, Betye is still a practicing artist at 94 years old. In the past year, she’s had exhibitions at both Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art. Her daughters Lezley and Alison have followed in her footsteps as visual artists of their own merit. Lezley is a mixed media artist and painter whose work deals with identity, including race and gender, as she uses narrative to intrigue the viewer in ways that good books might. Alison is a sculptor, mixed-media artist and installation artist whose work focuses on black female identity and spirituality. Alison is a decorated artist having been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The three artists’ works are published in a book, Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley and Alison Saar.
Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas
Photographer Deborah Willis is widely known for her photographic historian work that has educated audiences on the vast history of African Americans and photography. She’s worked with both the Schomburg Center for Research and the Smithsonian Institution as an exhibitions curator. She is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts art New York University. She has published more than twenty books on African American photography. Willis has been a Guggenheim and McArthur Fellow. She has contributed greatly to the knowledge base of African Americans and photography but her greatest contribution to the artworld might be her son Hank Willis Thomas. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose work reflects issues of identity, history, and popular culture. His work is in the public collections of Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, to name a few. His high-profile pieces consist of public sculptures and installations that are sculptures, photographs, and texts via billboards and projections. Thomas created several public art permanent sculptures including Love Over Rules in San Francisco, Unity in Brooklyn, and All Power to the People in Florida. In 2009, Willis and Thomas published a book, Progeny: Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas.
Tuliza Fleming and John E. Fleming
Tuliza Fleming is the inaugural curator of art at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. When she was hired in 2007 to build the art collection, the museum only owned one painting and one print. Working with a tight budget of $1 million to $1.5 million, she had to rely on donations to build the collection. Fleming is a product of Spelman College where her interest was art. There, she realized the lack of representation by artist of color in the museums, so she decided to become a curator to change that. Fleming worked under the tutelage of David Driskell at the University of Maryland, College Park where she did her graduate work. Though Fleming’s father Is not an art curator, he served as director for several museums, so she can relate to his experiences. John E. Fleming received his doctorate in American History in 1974 from Howard University. By 1980, he became Project Director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce Ohio. Fleming was named founding Director when the museum opened in 1988. He worked at several cultural institutions throughout Ohio including National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Fleming is the Director Emeritus at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Wilmer Jennings and Corrine Jennings
Atlanta, Georgia native Wilmer Jennings (1910 – 1991) was a printmaker, painter, and jeweler. Jennings studied under Hale Woodruff at Morehouse College. He formed a special bond with Woodruff and was able to show his work in the First Atlanta University Annual Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists organized by Woodruff. Jennings went on to study at Rhode Island School of Design. He worked with the Works Progress Administration to create art that depicted the economic and social hardship African Americans experienced during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Though Jennings’ daughter Corrine arrived in New York from Rhode Island to work in theatre, the establishment wasn’t welcoming to black women. So, she discovered a life in visual art. Corrine established Kenkeleba House in New York City’s East Village along with Joe Overstreet and Samuel C. Floyd in 1979. Kenkeleba house is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the artistic legacy of African American artists and other artists of color. The establishment has grown to include the Wilmer Jennings Gallery across the street from Kenkeleba House for which Corrine Jennings is the director. She has curated over 5,000 artists of color from throughout the diaspora. Jennings and her husband Joe Overstreet have amassed a significant collection of 19th-21st century African American and traditional African art.
Thomas Allen Harris and Lyle Ashton Harris
Thomas Allen Harris is an interdisciplinary artist who is best known for his documentary work, and specifically for Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, which was produced in collaboration with Deborah Willis. His work particularly explores family, identity and spirituality. Thomas is a senior lecturer at Yale University, and he created a transmedia project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, a virtual gathering space. Lyle Ashton Harris is a multidisciplinary artist who works with collage, installation and performance. His work focuses on his queer identity. The brothers attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program where Lyle created his first exhibition-style work. Lyle’s work and story were featured in Through a Lens Darkly, as his brother Thomas recounted their life’s history and used Lyle’s photograph in telling the history of black photography. Lyle’s work has exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Venice Biennale, and W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University, among other sites. Lyle is a recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize at the High Museum of Art and the Solomon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. His work is in the public collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, High Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum, and several others.
Faith Ringgold and Michele Wallace
Faith Ringgold is a painter, writer, and mixed-media sculptor best known for her story quilts and children’s books. But Ringgold started out by painting radically political and socially motivated artworks that spoke to the issues of the times. Her work, American People Serie #20: Die, created in 1967, now hangs in MoMA. Ringgold was an active participant in fighting for women’s rights, especially women artists. She and her daughter Michele Wallace were on the front lines of a protest at the Whitney Museum of American art in 1971 fighting to have more representation by black people and women in the museum. Michele Wallace is a noted black feminist, cultural critic, and writer. In 1979, she published the controversial Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman about the relationship between black men and women and the Moynihan Report. Wallace has written several scholarly texts, including Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory and Black Popular Culture. She has also written extensively about her mother. Today, Ringgold is still exhibiting her work, most recently with Serpentine Gallery in London in 2019, her first at a European Institution. Michelle Wallace is a professor of English at The City College in New York City.
John Biggers and Sanford Biggers
John Biggers (April 13, 1924 – January 25, 2001) was a muralist whose career began during the Harlem Renaissance. Biggers attended Hampton Institute where he became aware of artwork by African American artist for the first time. He studied under Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett and was introduced to the Mexican Muralists – Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Biggers went from not knowing that art was a possibility for him professionally to having his work included in Young Negro Art, an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Biggers went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Pennsylvania State University. And he served as the founding chair of the art department at Texas State University for Negroes. Though Biggers’ work started out as criticism of racial and economic injustice, his work later turned into allegory. John Biggers’ younger cousin Sanford Biggers is an interdisciplinary artist who first received notoriety in Freestyle, an exhibition curated by Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. For some time, Sanford’s work included paintings on quilts as he referenced the Underground Railroad. He was inspired by the textiles John Biggers had brought back from a trip to Ghana. Sanford has also been influenced by John’s allegorical Afrofuturism. In 2012, he created a multidisciplinary installation The Cartographer’s Conundrum with the purpose studying and expanding Afrofuturism. Sanford has taught at Columbia University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Spelman College.
Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett
Thornton Dial (10 September 1928 – 25 January 2016) began his art career later in life, in the 1980s, upon being jobless after the closure of the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, Alabama where he worked. In 1981, he dedicated his life to art. In 1987, Dial met fellow folk artist, Lonnie Holley, who introduced him to William Arnett, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation founder who would go on to exhibit Dial’s work around the world. Dial’s work addresses sociopolitical issues such as war, racism, bigotry, and homelessness. His work, though created by a self-taught artist, is highly regarded and has been included in contemporary art settings because of their rhetorical effectiveness. Dial’s work is in the public collections of museums across the country including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. Dial’s nephew, Ronald Lockett, was also a visual artist until he died in 1998 due to AIDS-related pneumonia. Lockett’s work was death driven, as he always feared it. Lockett’s great-grandmother and neighbor, Sarah Lockett, raised both Dial and Lockett. Lockett grew up under the mentorship of Dial, always knowing he wanted to be an artist. Still, when he started out, Dial didn’t call what he did art. However, Lockett witnessed it and was inspired by his work.
Though they don’t always mention their connections, familial bonds have made a significant impact on the careers of these art practitioners. These connections keep them resilient and relevant over long spans of time. If these art practitioners didn’t work together, they would be a lot less powerful as such collaborations inspire artists to express their greatest selves. The idea that only one in the family can succeed at high levels is a concept to be challenged. With the wisdom and support of family members who paved the way, the road to success is less threatening and more workable. Encouraged by kin, young and emerging artists will not only build family legacies, but a better artworld with more knowledgeable art practitioners.
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Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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