LOWERY STOKES SIMS
I am an artist who is African American. My work is universal and specific, drawn from my personal experiences, as well as from a collective spirit. It acknowledges and expresses the human condition as an African American woman expresses it. It is how I see my family, my culture, my world, and how I fit into those contexts.1
Pat Ward Williams
THERE IS no question that African American women artists have come into their own over the last three decades. In the context of the civil rights and women's movements, they have been afforded a wider variety of opportunities to showcase and market their work, and have begun to receive the critical attention they have long deserved. But despite these advances, the perception of African American women artists remains vague and unfocused. In her discussion of a theoretical approach to African American women's literature, Valerie Smith notes that the experiences of African American women have not been fully recognized as distinct from those currently defined as exclusively racial (and therefore dominated by African American men) or gendered (and therefore dominated by Caucasian women). This, she concludes, has thwarted the development of a more "totalizing" comprehension of African American women within American society. 2
From the first moment that African American artists appeared on the American art scene, they were prepared to compete. They were trained in standard European-based art curricula -- and even excelled within those precepts. They also sought to imprint their unique experience and heritage on their artmaking. This essay will survey the artistic enterprise of African American women visual artists over the last three decades, and identify some of the recurring issues and themes that have been manifest in their work. This is meant to be a preliminary discussion towards a "totalizing" comprehension of this group of artists that would help demonstrate their integral position within American culture, and indicate their unique potential for assuming leadership at the forefront of American arts and letters in the next century.
While literary, cultural, and social history fields have generated important studies of African American women, there have been relatively few projects that have surveyed the creativity of African American women artists. 3 The 1980 exhibition, "Forever Free: Art by African American Women 1862-1980," organized by Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps, was a groundbreaking effort in its presentation of a more "global" and conceptual approach to African American women artists. 4 In addition to providing the most complete survey of African American women's art to date, essays by Roslyn A. Walker, Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps, and Arna Alexander Bontemps located the historical precedents of black women's creativity in Africa. This illuminated issues of gender and women's role in society, and the history and reception of African American women artists in this country. The essays also covered issues of identity and images of African Americans in American art, and manifestations of cultural continuity in the use of materials and techniques.
In 1987 Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women published an issue called "Artists and Artisans," the first special issue on black women artists ever to appear in a scholarly journal. For over a decade, Sage has been the source of important original research on African American women, including visual artists.
In 1988 I published a study of African American women artists involved in performance art, which