In The Frame: Women of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a major cultural movement in the 20th century by black artists from the Harlem neighborhood in New York. Although the precise dates of the Renaissance are vague, the artwork remains strong and powerful to this day. Here are some of the women artists of the era.

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1988)

 black and brown painting of what looks like a mask and some abstract shapes   Jones, a black woman, sitting on some steps

[L-R: Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938. Photograph of Lois Mailou Jones, anon.]

Formally trained in art at France’s Academie Julian and coming from a relatively privileged background, Lois Mailou Jones used Western influences in her work until she could no longer accept the appropriative nature of the work of artists like Picasso and Matisse who were experimenting with African masks and religious rituals as themes.

“I had to remind them of Modigliani and Picasso and of all the French artists using the inspiration of Africa, and that if anybody had the right to use it, I had it, it was my heritage, and so they had to give in,” she said. The Academie Julian was initially disappointed at her rejection of Impressionistic art, but with this new direction came a leaning towards Cubism and sharp forms that were more expressive. This led to a reclaiming of African traditions and symbols that would continue throughout her career, with a particular focus on Ethiopia.


Augusta Savage (1892-1962)

 bronze bust sculpture of a young boy wearing a hat

[Augusta Savage, Gamin, 1930]

She may have been rejected by a prestigious Parisian summer school art program, but Augusta Savage didn’t let it defeat her. Instead, she went on to be one of the most prominent American female artists of her time, creating work for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She was also the first African-American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, in 1934. She began to explore art at an early age, making clay models at home as she lived near a brickworks, though her pastor father vocally disapproved. “He almost whipped the art out of me,” she said. Overcoming this, she moved on to study art and also to educate others in Harlem about their creative potential, balancing her own sculpting with directing the Harlem Community Art Center.

photo of Augusta Savage working on a sculpture

[Photograph of Augusta Savage, anon.]

Her sculptures of prominent historical figures such as Frederick Douglass remind us of the legacy of great African-Americans and put them, quite rightly, in the spotlight, but she also drew attention to her contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance in her work, including W.E.B. Du Bois.


Faith Ringgold (1930-)

a quilt that is stitched with faces in the squares

[Faith Ringgold, Echoes of Harlem, 1980]

She’s mainly known for her quilts—there are at least 95 of them—but Faith Ringgold is also a talented painter and incorporates that into her work, often adding acrylic layers or drawing with thread. Each piece tells a story, though only one is expressly autobiographical, and they explore issues such as racism, relationships, and slavery, the last of which is particularly poignant as her enslaved great-great grandmother quilted in the home where she was forced to work.

In Cafe Des Artistes we meet her icons, which include Meta Warrick Fuller, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jacob Lawrence. She’s also used her work to illustrate her own books, including Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. Ringgold  is passionate about using narratives to communicate with other people, and the Harlem Renaissance embraced this.

[Faith Ringgold, Le Cafe Des Artistes, 1994]

Faith Ringgold’s work can be found on the walls of West 125th Street Subway in Harlem, where she created two murals. You can also follow her on Twitter (@faithringgold) and read her blog. She’s still going strong, working hard on new ideas and interacting with a modern audience.

All three of these women should not only be celebrated as “Important Artists of Color,” or “Important Female Artists”; they are those things, but they’re also just plain artists, and we can recognize their contribution to painting, textiles, and sculpture on its merit alone. Though they initially achieved recognition during the Harlem Renaissance, they represent a voice that still needs to be heard, in the art world and beyond.

Previously: How Did You Discover Feminist Art?, I’m As Free As My Hair

by Polly Allen
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