Jeffreen M. Hayes, editor: Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman (Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, GILES, 2018)

I was a leap year baby, and it seems to me that I have been leaping ever since.” – Augusta Savage, born 29 February, 1892

Renaissance woman Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a native of Green Cove Springs, a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida, had to leap barriers of poverty, race and gender to become a ‘race woman’, Harlem’s foremost sculptor, teacher, and institution builder in especially the 1930s and 1940s, her achievements celebrated in a solo exhibition, the first in thirty years, at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville and this companion catalogue, edited by curator Jeffreen M. Hayes.

Life and legacy. Augusta Savage’s life and legacy is commemorated in three essays: Labor, Love, Legacy: Augusta Savage’s Art by guest curator of the Cummer exhibition, Jeffreen M. Hayes; Augusta Savage: A Gallery of Their Own by Bridget R. Cooks; and Monu*ment*ality: Edmonia Lewis, Meta Fuller, Augusta Savage and the Re-Envisioning of Public Space by Kirsten Pai Buick.

And we must not forget the Introduction by Howard Dodson, himself a major institution builder, director for a quarter of a century, from 1984 to 2010, of the New York Public Library’s historic  Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and one of the early leaders in the development of the African Burial Ground Monument in New York City, revealing – as Dodson puts it – “that all the founding 13 colonies were slave societies,” slavery not being just a Southern phenomenon.

In 1988, the Schomburg Center had mounted a major Augusta Savage exhibition, and – given the scarcity of surviving sculptures by Savage, about a dozen –, the lending of selected letters and archival photographs to Cummer makes Schomburg an important contributor to the 2018 exhibit.

For even the sculpture Realization (1938), used for the book’s front cover, and The Harp (1939),* maybe Savage’s most iconic sculpture, commissioned by the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, inspired by her friend and fellow Jacksonvillian James Weldon Johnson’s hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Black National Anthem, survive only as photographs and replicas, Savage not always having the means to cast her sculptures in bronze, or even store them safely.

Scholarship rescinded. Augusta Savage was recognized early on as a gifted sculptor, and in 1923 she was one of a hundred women artists given a scholarship, sponsored by the French government, to study at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris, France.

But the US selection committee, composed entirely of White men, upon learning that Augusta Savage was Black, rescinded the scholarship. Southern White women could not be expected to share travel accommodations and to eat at the same table as a Black woman. Causing even the great W.E.B. DuBois to intervene – unsuccessfully – on her behalf, see photocopies of archival letters.

And Savage writing to the editor of the New York World stood up not only for herself, but for other colored students : “How am I to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity?” Adding: “I don’t like to see them establish a precedent.”

Augusta Savage eventually did go to Paris, in 1929, on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, her three years in the city examined in New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (Rutgers University Press, 2001), by Theresa A. Leininger-Miller.

Empowering a community. Jeffreen M. Hayes in her essay writes that “Augusta Savage’s commitment to using art to empower an oppressed community is at the heart of this exhibition.”

Upon her return from Paris to New York, in 1932 Savage opened her Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, offering art classes free of charge, even giving some of her students an opportunity to teach (see the Reading Black article: Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis).

In the midst of the Great Depression, in 1937 the Harlem Community Art Center, funded by WPA, the Works Progress Administration, opened with Augusta Savage as its first director, and artist and poet Gwendolyn Bennett as her assistant, again giving free instruction to hundreds of students.

The Harlem community center was an inspiration for WPA-funded art centers in other cities, most significantly Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center. And Augusta Savage as educator, artist, and race woman impacted two generations of Harlem artist, according to Howard Dodson.

So aside from works by Savage herself – most notable perhaps Gamin (c. 1930, thought to depict her own nephew, used for the catalogue’s back cover), Reclining Nude (c. 1932), the tender bust Gwendolyn Knight (1934-35, recast 2001 in bronze), the monumental The Harp (1939), and James Weldon Johnson (c. 1939, another bust), see plates 1 to 20 – Hayes at the Cummer Museum decided to exhibit the works of eleven other artists taught or influenced by Augusta Savage:

Charles Alston, William Ellisworth Artis, Romare Bearden, Robert Blackburn, sculptor Selma Burke, Ernest Chrichlow, Barbadian born Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and the twins Morgan and Marvin Smith, painters and photographers – see plates 21 to 44.

The short-lived Harlem Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, another Augusta Savage institution building initiative, opened in June 1939 to create exhibition and sales opportunities for Black artists, Bridget R. Cooks calling the Salon both overdue –  a challenge to the mainstream art world and museums regularly catering exclusively to White artists without explanation or accountability – and premature, Augusta Savage not having the network of patrons with the means to collect African American art necessary to sustain her Salon. And within three months the gallery had to close.

Re-envisioning public space. Kirsten Pai Buick, in what Howard Dodson calls “her brilliant essay,” place Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), Meta Warrick Fuller (1872-1968), and Augusta Savage in a line of Black women artists trying to re-envision the role of public monuments.

And Pai Buick ask us to consider whether monuments in public spaces embody history (as facts) or memory (what we want to remember and celebrate as history), in light of the current debate about in particular Confederate statues and symbols, but other public monuments as well.

Edmonia Lewis’ marble Tomb Monument for Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt (c. 1870) at the historic Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, Massachusetts, shows the Greek goddess of health, Hygeia.  

A somewhat formal and traditional piece, its true importance lies in the woman it commemorates, Harriot Kezia Hunt (1805-1875), one of the first American women to practice medicine and an ardent feminist (“The present custom of educating young women only for marriage … is an enormous evil, and an unpardonable sin”), and in Hunt’s choice of Lewis, the first internationally known artist of African American and Native American ancestry, to create the family tomb.

And Pai Buick describes in some detail the barriers of racism and sexism that these two women had to overcome in their respective careers, especially the denial of educational opportunities.

Kirsten Pai Buick analyses three of Meta Warrick Fuller’s sculptures, the remarkable figure In Memory of Mary Turner as a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (a lynching, 1919), the allegory Peace Halting the Ruthlessness of War (1917), renamed Ravages of War and recast 1940 in bronze, and Spirit of Emancipation (1913, bronze 1999), another allegory, conceived for a New York exposition celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Meta Warrick Fuller, whom Pai Buick describes as highly educated, fiercely intelligent, and an internationalist in the scope of her understanding of racism at home as connected to imperialism abroad, had this to say about the meaning of her monument: “The Negro has been emancipated from slavery but not from the curse of race hatred and prejudice.”

Augusta Savage’s 1938 sculpture Realization, created as part of her work for the WPA, exists today only as a silver print showing the artist with her sculpture of two African Americans, husband and wife, sadly realizing that American freedom and freedom for African Americans are not the same.

Black Lives Matter. Kirsten Pai Buick dedicates her essay to Brittany “Bree” Newsome, African American filmmaker, musician, and activist, whom she sees as the direct heir to the three women artists she writes about, and to Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

On 27 June 2015 Bree Newsome climbed a thirty-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina State House to remove the Confederate flag, declaring: “This flag comes down today,” to Pai Buick the spark that ushered in the era of removal by activists and local governments of Confederate statues across the United States (South Carolina soon removed the flag permanently).

And in 2016 Colin Kaepernick during the playing of the U.S. national anthem prior to the game  ‘took a knee’ to protest the continuing killings of Black people and people of color by police officers later exonerated, in what Pai Buick describes as “clear cases of racialized executions.”

And after yet another police killing, that of 46 year old George Floyd  (“I can’t breathe”) by a White police officer on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota (after Pai Buick wrote her essay and the publication of this catalogue), people around the world – Denmark included – are protesting racism and inequality and ‘taking a knee’ in solidarity and support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

UFI // 28 June 2020

*Only last year, in 2019, Lauri Ramey used The Harp as the front cover image for her book, A History of African American Poetry (Cambridge University Press).

UFI | 06/28/2020