Howardena Pindell, Untitled (Talcum Powder), 1973. Punched paper chads, ink, thread, powdered pigment, and talcum powder on mat board, 71/2 × 91/4 in. (19.1 × 23.5 cm). Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The Past and Future of Art History Is Black Feminist Art History

Sarah Louise Cowan —

In 1993, artist and art historian Freida High Wasikhongo Tesfagiorgis called for a “Black feminist art history discourse” that would “prioritize the lives and concerns of Black women artists.” Existing art historical narratives, she argued, either negate the works of Black women artists or see them as complementary to the work of Black men, or marginal to the work of white women. Put differently, art history, as a set of critical conversations, perpetuates ideas about art that implicitly cast Black women’s contributions to art as inferior. This marginalization, Tesfagiorgis explains, places Black women artists and those who write about their work in a “defensive posture” from which they must respond to constant “misrepresentation” by others.[1]

Howardena Pindell, Yes–No, 1979. Pen and ink on acetate. Published in Howardena Pindell, “Criticisms/or/Between the Lines,” special issue, “Third World Women—The Politics of Being Other,” Heresies, no. 8 (1979).

Tesfagiorgis’s essay, which takes a trans-Atlantic approach, joined lively art world activism in the United States of the early 1990s. In these years, artist-activists such as Coco Fusco, James Luna, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Howardena Pindell, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Fred Wilson investigated how cultural institutions, through their collection and display practices, reproduced epistemological frameworks dependent on racism and sexism. Despite the supposed gains of multiculturalism’s ascendency in the years prior, artists of color, particularly women artists of color, encountered constant barriers to full inclusion in institutional art worlds.

Through her call for a Black feminist art history, Tesfagiorgis extended prevailing practices of institutional critique, which often focused on sites of display, by locating the root of Black women artists’ exclusions in the foundational myths of art history as a discipline. She asserted that “the language of art truly controls the system of art.” In other words, what is spoken and written about art determines when and how it becomes visible to and valued by potential audiences. A Black feminist art history discourse, according to Tesfagiorgis, would equip critics to engage with the visual work of Black women artists without re-entrenching racist, sexist, and classist biases. As a result, new narratives centering the experiences of Black women artists would emerge, allowing for a reframing of their work beyond limiting Eurocentric norms. The achievement of a Black feminist art history would require a radical rejection of existing material and aesthetic hierarchies, and instead recognize and interpret a diversity of cultural expressions, including craft practices, on their own terms.[2]

Howardena Pindell, Still from Free, White and 21, 1980. Color video with sound, 12:15 min. Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Tesfagiorgis is part of a generation of Black feminist art historians, artists, and critics working since the early 1970s to upend the disciplinary narratives that required them to justify Black women artists’ deviations from norms established to accommodate the experiences of white and male artists. She launched her career as a professor of African and African-American Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin in 1972. Her contemporaries include scholar Hazel Carby, art historians Tribotia Hayes Benjamin, Sharon Patton, and Judith Wilson-Pates, curators Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Lowery Stokes Sims, and critic Michele Wallace. These theorists labored in the wake of the Black Arts movement to assert the significance of Black American women’s artistic contributions. They drew on the work of predecessors such as David Driskell, Samella Lewis, and Regenia Perry as they created their own conversations about Black women’s art. In the early 1990s, artist-theorists Lorraine O’Grady and Adrian Piper identified artistic discourses as a major site of exclusion for Black women.[3] Wilson-Pates (then Wilson) became an editor at Ms. Magazine in 1975 and later wrote about contemporary artists, including profiles on Pindell and Alma Thomas and publications on Sargent Johnson, O’Grady, Piper, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. She earned her PhD from Yale University, writing her dissertation on the work of Bob Thompson. Similarly to Tesfagiorgis, Wilson-Pates advocated in the 1990s for “more Black feminist visual theory” in order to cultivate a broader discursive community around Black women’s art.

Howardena Pindell, Space Frame, 1969. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 32 × 40 in. (81.3 × 101.6 cm). Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

These Black feminist art history theorists have worked with diverse methods and theories to historicize and analyze a broad range of artistic practices. They engage with a full range of interdisciplinary art historical discourses, including social art history, Black cultural theory, and feminist psychoanalysis. Their work has been united by a shared concern for, in Tesfagiorgis’s words, transforming Black women artists from “a state of exclusion, marginalization, fragmentation and victimization to one of empowered visibility and action” (229).

Arguably, Tesfagiorgis’s and Wilson-Pates’s calls for more Black feminist art history have been borne out. In the last twenty years, a growing number of scholarly publications and major museum exhibitions have centered the work of Black women artists, including scholarly monographs about Loïs Mailou Jones, O’Grady, and Piper, Denise Murrell’s exhibition Posing Modernity, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Magnetic Fields, which presented abstract work by Black American women artists. These developments have accompanied major market expansions, as the work of some Black women artists, particularly those working in abstract or conceptual modes, have accrued market values hardly imaginable in the 1990s.

The insights of the early generation of Black feminist art history theorists, though sometimes unacknowledged, undergird the discipline’s more recent expansions. Scholars today, myself included, draw on the contributions of those who labored to establish the field decades earlier. For instance, Wallace’s pivotal insights into the suppression of the cross-cultural borrowings that generated modernist practice inform Kobena Mercer’s influential theorization of Romare Bearden’s photostat collages of the 1960s.[4] (Further research is needed into how the deep currents that flowed between Black feminist art history in the United States and Black British cultural studies of the 1980s and 1990s have transformed art historical narratives of the twentieth century.) Huey Copeland, in his important conceptualization of the role of the tactile in Black women’s modernist practices, credits Arna Bontemps, Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps, and Sims for their germinal insights on the topic.[5] Countless art historians, critics, and curators working since the early 1990s—Naomi Beckwith, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Eddie Chambers, Lisa Gail Collins, Lisa Farrington, Jacqueline Francis, Salah M. Hassan, Jennifer González, Rujeko Hockley, Kellie Jones, Sarah Lewis, Derek Conrad Murray, Charmaine Nelson, Jordana Moore Saggese—engage with insights generated by the earlier generation of Black feminist art historians. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of those trailblazers’ role in shaping leading present-day conversations about modern and contemporary art.

Ellie Thompson, c. 1980. Pindell cuts up canvases, sews them together with loose, visible stitches. In Ms. May 1980.

Howardena Pindell: Reclaiming Abstraction is deeply indebted to those Black feminist art history theorists and responds specifically to their calls to reframe episodes in contemporary art around the experiences of Black women artists, who are often left on the margins of art history. This approach makes space for new questions about art, such as how abstract art in the United States changed as a result of the Black Arts movement and feminist art movement of the 1970s. It also reveals central, though neglected, tensions within contemporary art. For instance, Black feminist art history shifts disciplinary understandings of authorial intention by centering artists who have never taken for granted their recognition as such.  

It is time for a historiography of Black feminist art history that acknowledges the foundational role that so many Black feminists have played in making this specific field, and the broader discipline of art history, possible and compelling today. Their careers are complex, long, and multi-faceted. Studying them has the potential to change the way art history understands itself. Tesfagiorgis concludes of Black feminist art history discourse that “as the major site wherein the knowledge/s of Black women artists, artists/scholars and art historians, and others would be exchanged, [it] would adhere to its immanent objective to circulate knowledge, language, power for its Black women subjects, thus ultimately contributing to the ‘new growth’ of a more comprehensive art history and larger art world practice.”[6] In other words, a Black feminist art history is the future of art history.

Sarah Louise Cowan is assistant professor of art and art history at DePauw University.

[1] Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis, “In Search of a Discourse and Critique/s that Center the Art of Black Women Artists,” in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, ed. Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia (New York: Routledge, 1993), 228.

[2] Ibid., 237, 248–51.

[3] Adrian Piper, “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists” (1990), in The Femi- nism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Amelia Jones (London: Routledge, 2010), 273; Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (1992), in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2003), 174–86.

[4] Michele Wallace, “Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson and Trinh T. Minh-ha (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 38–50; Kobena Mercer, “Romare Bearden, 1964: Collage as Kunstwollen,” in Cosmopolitan Modernisms, ed. Kobena Mercer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 124–45.

[5] Huey Copeland, “In the Wake of the Negress,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 490; Arna Alexander Bontemps and Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bon- temps, “African-American Art History: The Feminine Dimension,” in Forever Free: Art by African-American Women, 1862–1890, ed. Arna Alexander Bontemps (Alexandria, VA: Stephenson, 1980), 12; Lowery Stokes Sims, “African American Women Artists: Into the Twenty-First Century,” in Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, ed. Jontyle Theresa Robinson (New York: Rizzoli, 1996), 83–94.

[6] Tesfagiorgis, “In Search of a Discourse,” 240.

Recent Posts

All Blogs