(Re)Making Art History and its Spaces: Why Black Women Artists Matter

Waiting (from the silence of the Oridinary) | oil and mixed media on canvas 64.5x59.5 | Courtesy of the Bennett Collection

Waiting (from the silence of the Oridinary) | oil and mixed media on canvas 64.5x59.5 | Courtesy of the Bennett Collection

by Rehema Barber

As a child, I visited a varying array of museums and institutions dedicated to the preservation of the world’s culture. The Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago were by far my favorite. However, during the countless hours that I spent wondering those hallowed halls, it never occurred to me that those spaces were a bit lopsided, that they were somewhat stereotypical or that there were racial or gender imbalances. Like, most visitors, I was satis ed to look at the curious objects that illustrated the past and were remnants of the people and places that existed previously. It would be years later, as an Art History student, that I would begin to consider the role that space can play in the construction of society’s cultural hierarchy.

As a result, I began to critically think about the roles of museums in society and that perhaps a career in museums should be seriously contemplated. A mentor encouraged me: “Now is a good time to get into the eld for women, especially for women of color.” However, it was not until a Women in Art: Feminism from 1960 to Present course that I truly understood what my professor meant. As I learned how the 1960’s and 70’s were rmly claimed by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago and the Gorilla Girls, I began to recognize how underrepresented women of color, speci cally women of African descent, were in the visual arts. Certainly the trail had been blazed by the likes of Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell, but I realized that those wonderful women couldn’t be the only voices that would represent the collectivity of black womanhood.

Consequently, I began to deliberately seek out and research the work of women artists, especially those of non-European descent. During those early investigations I found the work of Magdalena Campos- Pons, Coco Fusco, Lorraine O’Grady, Renee Stout, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Debra Willis and so many others. Each discovery always left me wondering why the work wasn’t being taught in my art history courses. Why I couldn’t go into most museums and see this work. Why I wasn’t seeing myself re ected in the visual arts landscape. Yet these fundamental [cultural] omissions, helped emphasize the importance of going beyond what I was learning in the classroom and take ownership over the content of what I was learning outside of my required textbooks. It also helped me to decide that I would specialize in Contemporary Art with an emphasis on artists of the African Diaspora and women artists more speci cally, while pursuing a career in museums. Throughout the years great strides have been made within the museum and visual arts community. 

Nonetheless, recent reports indicate that there are huge gaps that women of color must bridge in the museum community.1 Yet, there is no doubt that a survey of the current landscape reveals some of the brightest artistic minds that are shaping the dialogues featured on the world stage: from Latoya Ruby Frazier to Wangechi Mutu, to Julie Mehretu to Mickalene Thomas to Shinique Smith to Kara Walker. Women artists of African descent, like the aforementioned, are not just creating conversations; they are also receiving international acclaim for their contributions to the field.

We can and should celebrate these women and cheer their accomplishments. They are doing important work by paving a path like those that came before them, for generations of artists that will come after them. Yet, we must also remember that there are more stories to discover; books and articles to be written; and that we must always be looking toward the future, while also remembering the past.

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1 Schonfeld, Roger, and Marïet Westerman with Liam Sweeney. “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey.” Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 28 July 2015. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.

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