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Celebrating Artists’ Portraits at the Library of Congress for African American History Month

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The following guest post is by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division

In honor of African American History Month, this gathering of extraordinary individual and group portraits by contemporary artists features works that speak of community, family, and the envisioned past, present, and future.

Color print showing woman looking upwards
Spirit Sister. Screenprint by Nelson Stevens, 2013. Reproduced by permission, Raven Fine Art Editions. //

Nelson Stevens’s vibrant screenprint called Spirit Sister, made in collaboration with master printer Curlee Raven Holton, is based on Stevens’s circa 1971 painting depicting fellow artist Valerie Maynard. Stevens is famously a member of the Chicago-based collective AfriCOBRA (African Community of Bad Relevant Artists). Formed in 1968, the group was closely aligned with the Black Arts Movement and has included among its members Jeff Donaldson, Gerald Williams, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, James Phillips, Renée Stout, and others. Stevens, whose work exemplifies AfriCOBRA artists’ use of brilliant “Kool-Aid” colors, recalls: “I was very happy to join a group whose emphasis was on color. When I was invited to join, it was the first time that the rap matched the work that I was making. They had great technical skills and knowledge.” When asked about portraiture in his work, Stevens responded: “I’m careful as to whose portrait I use. Originally, I only used the heroes like Malcolm, Martin, or Amiri Baraka. Those are the people who started the movement. But I’m also interested in the soldiers.”

Black-and-white print showing man looking straight ahead
Kerry. Conté crayon, charcoal, and acrylic by Alfred Amadu Conteh, 2018. Reproduced by permission. //

Alfred Amadu Conteh’s drawing Kerry is from his Two Fronts series of drawn and painted portraits that represent, in the artist’s words: “…visual explorations of how African diaspora societies in the south are fighting social, economic, educational and psychological wars from within and without to survive.” Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Conteh is often compared to celebrated 20th century artist Charles White and also cites Elizabeth Catlett, John Wilson, and Augusta Savage among his artistic influences. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, when many submitted ballots by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kerry was featured in a series of “I Voted” stickers commissioned by New York Magazine in collaboration with the nonpartisan organization I am a voter.

Color print showing woman looking at the viewer, floral designs superimposed
I Look for You. Relief print and lithograph with acrylic, stibilo pencil, liquid gold, fabric, decorative papers, and hand stitching by Delita Martin, 2019. Reproduced by permission. //

Texas-based artist Delita Martin explains: “The women that I draw are not one woman but represent many. These women represent grandmothers, mothers, sisters and aunts.” I Look for You, part of the artist’s series Shadows in the Garden, show’s Martin’s strong engagement with color and pattern inspired by quilt-making (learned from her maternal grandmother) and storytelling. Comparable to the process of piecing quilts, she layers printmaking, drawing, fabric, paper, and hand stitching to piece together a story, deepened by the symbolic use of form and color. Blue operates as a spiritual color in this portrait whose subject appears to weave between the material and spirit world. Her riveting gaze suggests that she is both seen and seeing.

Color print showing a woman seated, a man behind her and children in front of her
Unity. Offset lithograph by Louis Delsarte, 1995. Reproduced by permission, Brandywine Workshop. //

Unity by New York-born artist Louis Delsarte shows a loving group portrait in which family members are closely connected by touch, gaze, color, and pattern. The seated, Madonna-like woman and young girl at her knees look forward while father, son, and baby all turn toward the mother. Among striking features in the composition are partial visual echoes of heads and bodies, most notably in the father who appears in overlapping dream-like and solid forms. These echoes and outlines underscore a spiritual quality in the image by creating halo-like shapes along with the curving bridge seen from the window in this interior view.

Color print showing figures on chairs and couches, seen from above
The Get Together. Lithograph by Carmen Cartiness Johnson, 2005. Reproduced by permission. //

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Carmen Cartiness Johnson was inspired to make this ceiling’s eye view group scene after attending a Fourth of July party: “After all the ribs, chicken and fish, greens and potato salad had been devoured, one by one the women gravitated to the family room of our host home. Maybe because it was hot outside or the bugs became too much or maybe it’s what women do. We find a place, a place that is cozy, warm and inviting. Bodies get comfortable, shoes come off and conversations begin to flow easily. In this place the commonalities that women share outweigh the differences of race, religious, economic or class separations. Women share the reliance on sisterhood to pull them through life’s disappointments, triumphs, hardships and joys. This amazing capacity of women from different backgrounds to be able to sit around a community table and translate their shared experience and concerns was something I wanted to investigate as a print.”

Color print showing man wearing white and red carrying and wearing tools
Chief Mechanic. Offset lithograph by Robert Pruitt, 2012. Reproduced by permission, Brandywine Workshop.

Robert Pruitt’s heroic Chief Mechanic appears in an Afrofuturist twist on recruitment posters. Carrying a monumental wrench, he dominates the image above text reading (from middle, bottom, to top):  “ENLIST! Homecoming Mothership Defense Squadron. Mechanics, Electricians, Hackers, Rappers, Artists, Dancers, Shooters, 3PT Specialists, etc. Apply Within.” Based in Houston, Texas, Pruitt observes: “The notion of black identity has been complicated and largely misunderstood. We control neither the construction nor the distribution of our varied and multilayered stories of self. I am attempting to disrupt the existing narratives with my own….these works, out of necessity, speak from a dichotomy of both a western art language and a black popular expression, as this is the duality in which I operate. I work from and seek to reference forms that are relevant to both spaces.”

Among many more remarkable artist portraits and figural works in the Library’s collections are Emma Amos’s American Girl and Sand Tan, Robert (Bob) Blackburn’s Girl in Red, Elizabeth Catlett’s Black is Beautiful and Mother and Child, Margo Humphrey’s The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face, Joseph Holston’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Toni Lane’s What I Do All Day, Kerry James Marshall’s Memento, Teddy “Stat” Phillips’s She the Culture and She is Saving the World, and Charles White’s Frederick Douglass, to name just a few examples.

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Comments (11)

  1. The Library of Congress is the largest repository of fine art works on paper and its collection of fine art Afro-Americana is a research treasure trove without peer. Under the long-time visionary leadership of Katherine Blood, the collection maintains its leadership as a research and educational institution that supports our American social polity writ large in its quest to embrace the entirety of Americans and their creative output. This across our beautiful ethno-cultural spectrum that is the American narrative still emerging. I delight in seeing this presentation that references so much of of the African American creative output collected by our LOC.

  2. Beautiful!

  3. Thank you Mel for commenting so thoughtfully and kindly. You beautifully express the power that creative voices have to reflect and connect us. It is a constant honor to help grow and share the Library’s collections.

  4. Thank you for sharing these paintings. They are beautiful. I recently discovered the artwork of a Dallas artist- Ms Evita Tezeno. Her art is unique in that it is different paper mediums she puts together in the cubism style to create paintings. You can find her art on the world wide web. I will definitely share your current collection with friends who are art lovers.

  5. Thank you Tom and all best wishes!

  6. A beautiful article on a beautiful collection. Thanks to the curator for bringing it all together for us.

  7. Thank you for highlighting theses talented artists and their thought-provoking works.

  8. The Library of Congress is one of our the world’s most cherished repositories of invaluable knowledge, historical and precious artifacts, containing some of our nation’s most precious gifts containing their beautiful contributions to the world and beyond.

    Humbly Your!

  9. Informative amd eloquent. Such a vision of hope! Thanks to Katherine Blood and the LoC team for the work in getting all voices heard and celebrated!

  10. Sending heartfelt thanks to All for your time and attention, thoughtful responses, and kind sharing of art and ideas. Best wishes, Katherine

  11. these portraits are just great so vital !!

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