Where Are the Black Women Artists At?
By Yvonne Bynoe
“You can’t sit around waiting for someone else to say who you are—you need to write it and paint it and do it.” —Faith Ringgold
Historically, women artists have been underrepresented in museums and galleries.
In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of anonymous [presumably White] feminist visual artists, shook up the art world by publicizing that female artists represented less than 8% in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exhibit, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. One of the activist group’s best known actions was the 1989 poster they created to criticize The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. On the poster, Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s painting “Grande Odalisque” (1814) is shown with the woman’s head replaced by a gorilla mask. The caption asks:
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”
According to a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts study, 51 percent of visual artists working today are women. However, more than two decades after the Guerrilla Girl’s debut, a 2019 study revealed that, between 2008-2019, only 11% of artists in major museum collections were women. When it comes to black women artists, their absence in galleries and museums is glaring.
Ninety-one year old artist, Faith Ringgold, is finally getting her first New York retrospective in 2022. Moreover, only this year did the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC acquire its first work by Ringgold, “American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding” (1967).
Ringgold is an artist, activist, author, and educator. In her more than 60-year career, she’s employed painting, quilting, sculpture, and printmaking to explore issues related to social and racial justice, black identity, women rights, and her personal experiences as a black woman in the United States. In “Flag is Bleeding,” the White woman figure is linked arm-in-arm with the knife-wielding black male figure and the suit-clad white male figure. The absence of a black woman figure was Ringgold’s commentary on the exclusion of black women from discourses on power and equality in the United States.
Ringgold’s quilts also opened the door for a new generation of textile artists such as Bisa Butler, Phyllis Stephens, and Stephen Towns by erasing the boundary between high art and “low art.” Older black American women artists such as master quilters, Harriet Powers and the women of Gee Bend, had been consigned to the lesser realm of “low art” or folk art by the art world. Given Ringgold’s groundbreaking oeuvre, her overdue recognition represents the glacial pace of progress for black women artists.
In 1971, artist, Dindga McKinnon hosted a group of black women artists in her New York City apartment, which included artists Faith Ringgold and Kay Brown, to discuss their consistent omission from exhibitions. The result of this meeting was Where We At, one of the first exhibitions in New York City for professional black women artists.
A year earlier, Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show, an exhibition of the work of black women artists, opened at Gallery 32 on July 4, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. The pop-up exhibition ran for five days. The show was a consequence of black women artists having few opportunities to exhibit their work. Participant Betye Saar would go on to cement her reputation within the art world with her work, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) that transformed the Aunt Jemima figure from a passive mammy into a grenade-throwing, black revolutionary.
The selection of the name Sapphire speaks volumes about how black women artists felt that they were being perceived by the art world. The fictional Sapphire Stevens was the stereotypical Angry Black Woman on the radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy. The 1920s radio show debuted in 1928 and was written and performed by white men; the subsequent television program in the 1950s used black actors. Sapphire dominated and constantly emasculated her scheming, wannabe millionaire husband George “Kingfish” Stevens. In a 2020 New York Times article about the continued use of the Angry Black Woman trope, Georgetown professor, Michael Eric Dyson stated,
“The notion of the angry black woman was a way— is a way—of trying to keep in place black women who have stepped outside of their bounds, and who have refused to concede the legitimacy of being a docile being in the face of white power.”
What history has continually shown is that gains for women and African-Americans often don’t accrue to black women.
According to Artnet, between 2008 and the first five months of 2019, more than $196.6 billion has been spent on art at auctions. Of the $196.6 billion, only $4 billion (or 2 percent) were sales of works by women. Of those 2 percent, five white female artists accounted for $1.6 billion or 40 percent of the $4 billion spent on women artists during the 11.5 year period. In descending order, those artists are: Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Agnes Martin.
While individual black women artists have made great strides within the art market, black women artists overall remain marginalized. In a September 2019 Artnet article, Marina Gertsberg, a visiting research scholar at Yale University’s School of Management, explained the obstacles that black women artists face: “Buyers are still reluctant to pay high prices for work by female artists.”
She added that the issue is exacerbated by the “superstar effect,” whereby a small number of elite artists garner the lion’s share of the sales. The superstar effect, according to Gertsberg, is “even stronger for minorities like female artists or African-American artists. Within those groups, competition is even greater because those minorities are competing even more for the few spots on top.”
The superstar effect has resulted in a few black women artists selling works at auctions in New York and in London for more than USD $1 million dollars, including:
- (American) Amy Sherald’s “The Bathers” (2015) sold for $4.2 million at auction in 2020. Sherald’s career skyrocketed after being selected in 2016 to paint the official portrait of the former First Lady of The United States Michelle Obama.
- (American) Mickalene Thomas’s “Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit” (2016) sold in 2021 for more than $1.8 million, marking the first time her work sold for more than $1 million at auction.
- (British) Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Diplomacy III (2009) sold at auction for $1.95 million in 2021. This beats her prior record for “The Hours Behind You,” (2011) which sold at auction for $1.5 million in 2017.
Following close behind are:
- (American) Nina Chanel Abney‘s “Untitled (XXXXXX) (2015),” a powerful painting of two black cops arresting a white man, sold for $990,000 at auction in 2021, setting a new record for the artist.
- (Nigerian-American) Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “Eastern Entrance (2016)” was sold in 2018 at auction in Hong Kong for $832,709.
The patterns set by prestigious auction houses, museums, and galleries, unfortunately, tend to trickle down to local art markets. Consequently, black women artists attempting to sell works for four or five figures remain less likely than white women or black men to have their work exhibited or acquired.
A key lesson from The Sapphire Show and Where We At exhibitions is that black women artists have to be in the forefront of creating opportunities for their work to be shown and bought. In 2017, Sasha Loriene, a Liberian-American artist, founded Black Girls Who Paint after being repeatedly rejected for local exhibitions and artist calls. In a 2020 interview, Loriene said:
“I would see the artists who were chosen and 90 percent of them were not women of color. So, I decided I was tired of seeing rejection emails and decided to create my own table, an ecosystem of Black women artists, and bring them in as opposed to always knocking on someone else’s door waiting for a pass.”
Loriene’s membership-based organization is located in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and serves black women artists of all ages. Black Girls Who Paint uses its membership fees to provide professional development resources, financial support through e-cards and scholarships, and opportunities for members to showcase their work online and in-person.
Black women artists and their supporters need to start thinking more broadly about how to develop exhibition opportunities that will allow them to reach black art buyers.
Why aren’t there panel discussions on art collecting and a designated gallery space (not in a hallway nor in vendor areas) for black women artists at the annual Essence Festival hosted by Essence or during the yearly national conferences of black sororities and women’s civic organizations? How many church basements and community recreation centers could be used monthly or quarterly as spaces where local black artists of both genders could exhibit and sell their work? Why aren’t more black-owned restaurants and eateries being used to display art?
The art game isn’t rigged. It simply wasn’t established to benefit anyone but white male collectors and artists.
Black artists and collectors, however, shouldn’t abandon the system. The art world will be slowly reformed by black artists, curators, and collectors who are part of the current structure and who are fighting for more equity and inclusion. In the meantime, black artists, educators, and gallerists nationwide should also be using available resources online and in their neighborhoods to create local arts ecosystems to showcase and sell art that reflects their community’s tastes and budgets.
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YVONNE BYNOE is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.
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