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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- Tour the online exhibition Creative Space: Fifty Years of Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop, which celebrates MacArthur Award-winning master printer Bob Blackburn and artists he worked with including Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, John Wilson, and many more.
- Discover Harlem Renaissance era prints, drawings, and photographs from the Harmon Foundation collection by such artists as James Latimer Allen, Allan Rohan Crite, David Driskell, Wilmer Jennings, William H. Johnson, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, James Lesesne Wells, and Hale Woodruff. (Most images will display larger only in Library of Congress buildings because of rights considerations.)
- Explore the online publication The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture.
- Have a look at our research guide African American Communities in America’s Cities: Photographs by Camilo J. Vergara.
- Visit the African American History Month website with content contributed by the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.