Her Story: Self-Taught African-American Women Artists


Jim Furr


This exhibition is organized in recognition and observance of black history month and women's history month. It is a comprehensive survey exhibition of self-taught African-American women artists over the last thirty to forty years in the United States. We are fortunate that the center of African-American self taught art is the southeastern United States including Alabama. This is a very rare opportunity to view work by all of these artists in the context of one curated exhibition. Only eight of the eighteen women in the exhibition are living and still producing art. As African-American women all eighteen, to varying degrees, certainly have had to endure, resist, protest, circumvent, and simply survive culturally imposed oppression and restrictions. In many instances, they also have endured great personal trials, grief, and hardships. Yet, somehow these women have been compelled to spend a significant portion of their lives making these remarkable pieces of visual art. This exhibition is intended to recognize and to honor these amazingly talented, strong, and brave African-American women.

Since I am a university teacher of art, my first purpose in curating this exhibition, is to show this extraordinary work to our art students, to the university as a whole, and to the larger community. As a collector of self-taught art, a visual artist, and a teacher, I have made use of my knowledge of these artists, as well as several collectors and dealers to find the best pieces that were available for the exhibition. I have chosen the works for visual impact, art historical significance, and in many cases, for content related to black history and/or women's history. My intentions have been to select a representative body of visual art made by these artists and design a visual exhibition which, hopefully, encourages and stimulates thought and discourse on the part of the viewers. Additionally, it has been my intent and hope, that this exhibition would provide a context in which scholars of black history and women's history could and would react and respond. Seventeen of the artists are self-taught. One of the women, Beverly Buchanan, is academically trained as an artist. Her work, in terms of concept/content, is intentionally influenced by self-taught art. Academically trained, mainstream artists have been influenced by self-taught art or "folk art" at least since the early part of the twentieth century with the cubist movement. In recent years, this influence has been a very important part of much contemporary, mainstream visual art. I have included Buchanan's work as an example but also to hopefully cause some discussion/discourse of this as a critical art issue.

There are many individuals and organizations whose help, advice and support have made this exhibition possible. I want to thank everyone who has loaned art or provided support and they will be listed and acknowledged elsewhere. Here, I would like to acknowledge and thank a few individuals who in various ways have helped make this a much stronger exhibition than initially expected. Thanks to Barb Bondy, the Art Department's Exhibitions Director, for inviting me to curate this show and for her unbelievable patience with me throughout the process. Thanks to Barbara Louviere, for providing important information, very helpful advice, and several pieces from her collection including the work of two of the most historically important artists, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Clementine Hunter. Thanks to Don Bayley, for loaning five of the original drawings made by Inez Walker while incarcerated in a correctional facility in New York in the early seventies. Mr. Bayley's mother was teaching English to the prisoners and purchased these "first" drawings from Walker. These pieces have not been exhibited in many years and are of great historical significance. Thanks to John Cram for loaning a large historically important sculpture piece by Bessie Harvey. Thanks to Jack and Georgine Clarke for loaning several pieces from their collection and to Georgine for her long-term and continuing encouragement and advice to me as a collector. Thanks to Marcia Weber for welcoming me into her home and gallery for a very long, but extraordinarily valuable and informative day and for allowing me to choose whatever I wanted for the exhibition.

Most importantly, thanks to the artists whose homes I visited, and for the work they created and loaned. I am always humbled by the gracious warmth, courtesy, and generosity of these artists.