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African American Sculptures

Between 1900 and 1950, hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated from the mostly agricultural Southern United States to Northern metropolitan centers, such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Prior to this shift, most notable African American visual artists were either trained as painters, or created textile and folk art for a more local audience. The great migration northward gave rise to a broader sense of cultural identity among African Americans.

This period came to be known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” and saw the rising of a new generation of African American Sculptors, who gained international recognition and fame, while battling the institutional forces of racism and segregation. The career of Augusta Savage epitomizes, in many ways, the achievements and struggle of many of her contemporary artists. Her application to study in France, in 1923, was denied by the judging committee, because she was black. Eventually, seven years later, she succeeded, and left to study portraiture in Paris. In her best work, such as “La Citadelle: Freedom” (1930), she is able to combine historical relevancy with the human form.

Sculptors such as Savage, Richmond Barthé, and Jerry Harris established studios in Harlem, Chicago, and elsewhere throughout the United States. These artists also were frequently torn between more traditional compositions and the influences of international Modernism, which focused on more expressionist, abstract elements.

Quick Facts

  • Today Barthé’s famous sculpture “Boxer” can be seen in the Art Institute of Chicago, while his “Toussaint L'Ouverture” stands outside the presidential palace in Port-Au-Prince
  • Augusta Savage was the first African-American Artists to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors
  • Contemporary artist Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” installation included 12 sculptural representations of children, coated in sugar, alongside a 30-ton “sugar sphinx,” and was one of the most successful art installations of 2014 in New York City

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