- Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists
Lisa Farrington's Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists surveys the work of African American women artists from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries.1 It is richly illustrated and includes biographical information on each artist, in-depth visual analyses of works of art, and a selected bibliography. Farrington's goal is to rectify the "unpardonable" omission of black women artists from standard American art canonical surveys—texts that focus almost exclusively on white male artistic production. She employs a black feminist perspective to document "the legacy of struggle and triumph of African-American women artists, who have fallen prey to both racial and gender misrepresentations and who have, since the African slave trade began, strained against a dominant and insular culture" (3). Black feminist thought has four core themes: the interlocking nature of the systems of oppression of race, gender, and class; "[the] call for replacing denigrated images of Black womanhood with self-defined images; [the] belief in Black women's activism as mothers, teachers, and Black community leaders; and [the] sensitivity to sexual politics" (Collins 1990, 23). Farrington addresses these core themes on various levels, foregrounding the issues of race, gender, and class oppression and the creation of black women's self-defined representations.
Farrington has arranged her book into two sections. Part I (chapters one to seven) surveys African American women's artistic production from slavery to the civil rights era, including chapters on "The Nineteenth-Century Professional Vanguard," "The Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro," and "Black Feminist Art." She states: "African-American women have been faced with the near-impossible task of recasting their own image into one that better reflects their emotional and intellectual depth and diversity" (25). Farrington aims to provide a backdrop for understanding black women's impetus to creativity through the insistence on self-definition. This power of self-definition "reframes the entire dialogue from one of protesting the technical accuracy of an image . . . to one stressing the power dynamics underlying the very process of definition itself. . . . the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women's power as human subjects" (Collins 1990, 106–7). Part II (chapters eight to twelve) is organized into five themes: abstraction, conceptualism, [End Page 211] vernacular art, postmodern pluralism, and "post-black" visual culture. Farrington maintains the biographical model from Part I. Part II differs significantly from Part I in the sheer number of artists included. In chapters such as "Abstraction Explorations," she discusses nineteen black women artists, postulating that although they embraced nonfigurative imagery, they also subtly engaged politics in their respective mediums. In "Postmodern Pluralism" she examines the work of fifteen artists, linking them together through a loose definition of postmodernism: "At the most basic level, the term is a chronological signifier, defining art produced since the 1960s, when formalism was replaced by revisionism as an art historical approach, and when the preeminence of painting and sculpture succumbed to unconventional media" (250).
It is in Section I, chapters six and seven, and Section II, chapters eight and nine, that Farrington most directly addresses the topic of feminism and activist art, the theme of this special issue of NWSAJ. Her discussion provides a useful resource for instructors of art history or Women's Studies seeking to integrate material about black feminism and activist art into their courses. Farrington does not use the rubric of "feminist activist art" to organize her discussion in these chapters. Rather, it is something that must be teased out based on a working definition of the category. In an essay entitled "Feminist Activist Art in Action," Helen Klebesadel defines feminist activist art as that which disrupts everyday life and/or intervenes in the art world. Typically, Klebesadel argues, feminist activist art resists the idea of making art for purely aesthetic purposes and engages materials and subject matter that are nontraditional in the academic art world: feminist...