Where are the Black Female Avant-Gardes?
Black women remain underrepresented in the art world.
Written by Elise Provident
Black women have long been the unsung heroes of American pop culture. From music and fashion to everyday words and phrases, Black women exert massive influence over pop culture — what we watch, listen to, read, say and do on a daily basis. So why aren’t Black women represented in museums and art history textbooks?
Forbes contributor Adrienne Gibbs interviewed Aria S. Halliday on the subject of Black women as cultural muses. Halliday, a University of Kentucky assistant professor, argues that “Black women have influenced every aspect of popular culture since they were brought over on slave ships.” Halliday is not alone in her assessment of African American women and pop culture. Both Halliday and former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith released successful books on the topic in 2022.
Moreover, the entertainment industry is more concerned with diversity than ever, with social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite leading to dramatic changes in who is given opportunities and recognized for their creativity. Thus, we can only expect interest in Black female influence to grow with each coming year.
“Black women have influenced every aspect of popular culture since they were brought over on slave ships.”
Despite their importance in shaping the cultural moment, Black women are rarely applauded with the same enthusiasm as white people or even their Black male counterparts. This problem is especially prevalent in the fine arts, where women — specifically women of color —have always been underrepresented in art museums, galleries and textbooks. In 2019, a group of mathematicians, statisticians and art historians at Williams College researched 18 major American museum collections and found that only 1.2% of works were produced by African American artists, by far the lowest share of all demographics studied. Unsurprisingly, white male artists dominated museum collections with 85.4% of works produced by white artists, and 87.4% produced by men. In other words, Black female artists are given almost no room to shine in our cultural institutions.
Black women have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to succeeding in the fine arts. Historically, white men have been given the educational opportunities and resources necessary to pursue a career in the fine arts. Black Americans, on the other hand, have struggled under the lingering legacy of slavery. Whereas white artists benefit from unbridled freedom, generational wealth, or at least a preconceived notion of competency, Black artists are forced to fight the institutional odds stacked against them.
Black women’s experiences are shaped not only by systemic racism but also by deeply-rooted sexism. This intersection of prejudices (termed misogynoir by scholar Moya Bailey in 2010) means that Black women are not always given their due in campaigns to champion African American and female creative voices. In many cases, African American women remain a subjugated class of creative thinkers whose works are neglected by our cultural institutions.
Despite their importance in shaping the cultural moment, Black women are rarely applauded with the same enthusiasm as white people or even their Black male counterparts.
Thanks to the team at Williams College, we can definitively say that there is a misogynoir problem in American museum collections. Black women make up less than one percent of the artwork in museum collections, despite being a significant source of social influence. This is not an issue of Black women lacking creativity; rather, this is an issue of a lack of representation and opportunity in the fine arts.
To make matters worse, representation in museums, galleries, journals and textbooks is essential to the success of an artist. In 2018, Columbia Business School professor Paul Ingram and his colleague Mitali Banerjee examined the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) archives to examine the role of creativity and social networking in critical and commercial success. Artsy’s Associate Director of Content, Casey Lesser, analyzes Ingram and Banerjee’s findings: “artists with a large and diverse network of contacts were most likely to be famous, regardless of how creative their art was.” Without the opportunity to make valuable connections in museum or gallery settings, how can we expect underrepresented artists to succeed? As long as their works are overlooked by arts institutions, Black female artists will lose opportunities for financial and critical success.
That being said, many African American women have made their mark on the avant-garde sphere. Alma W. Thomas, Lois Mailou Jones, Gwendolyn Knight and Faith Ringgold were all active during the avant-garde movements of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Ringgold is perhaps the most famous of the group for her narrative quilts, but artists such as Howardena Pindell and Suzanne Jackson made works to rival the prominent abstract expressionists of their day. Emma Amos, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald and countless other contemporaries continue the legacy of avant-garde art with work that is just as compelling as that of any white male artist. Their successes show growth (despite limits) in the opportunities for Black women to succeed in the fine arts.
Black female artists are given almost no room to shine in our cultural institutions.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that these great artists are marginalized as Black artists, or women artists, or Black women artists. With so few works of art by Black women in museums and publications, any artwork that does end up in a collection stands out not for its creative merit but for its token role as the diverse work of art. We cannot be satisfied by one or two out of a thousand works of art displayed being created by Black women. Of course, any step towards diversity is a step in the right direction, but including only a few works by African American women is not the win that some think it to be.
The next time you visit a museum, read a chapter of an art history textbook or peruse your local arts magazine, pay attention to who created the works of art. Instead of asking if there is diversity, ask how much diversity is represented and why. Only then can we push arts institutions to be and do better.