Shapeshifting Roles of “the Folk” in African American Art History

Authored by: Elaine Y. Yau

The Routledge Companion to African American Art History

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138486553
eBook ISBN: 9781351045193
Adobe ISBN:


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Consider three scenarios:

In Charleston, South Carolina, Mary Jane Manigault coils sweetgrass into a basket. “My mother taught me how to make baskets when I was eight years old,” she tells passers-by who ask how she learned this art form. 1 In 1984, she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship.

The brightly-colored quilts made by women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, vibrate against the white-walled galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston during a 2002 exhibition. Visitors marvel at their off-kilter visuality while critics contemplate their similarity to Frank Stella’s minimalist paintings (Figure 27.1).

The Wall of Respect in Chicago (1967) is a mural painted by the black artists’ collective, Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). As artist Jeff Donaldson recalled, OBAC artists sought to create “images inspired by African people … which African people can relate to directly.” 2 Notably, Donaldson addresses neither “black folks” nor “African Americans,” but a group unified by common diasporic ancestry. Though no longer extant, the mural sparked a nation-wide movement of black muralists whose art paid tribute to Black creativity and history with the aim of mobilizing black communities politically.

Figure 27.1 <i>Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt</i>, Exhibition View, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © Museum of Fine Arts Houston Archives. From left to right: Louisiana P. Bendolph (b. 1960), two <i>Housetop Variation </i>quilts, 2003 © 2019 Louisiana Bendolph / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Third through seventh quilts from left are by Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960), <i>Medallion</i>, 2005; <i>Medallion</i>, 2005; <i>Two-sided geometric quilt</i>, 2003; <i>Blocks and strips (yellow and red)</i>, 2006; and <i>Blocks and strips (red and black)</i>, 2004, © 2019 Loretta Pettway Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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