Contemplate those things we all know about the nature of prejudice in America. Then try to imagine a 19th century African American female with aspirations to be a sculptor.
There was one such; her name was Mary Edmonia Lewis. Since her time, there have been others, as witnesses the exhibition “Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox” at the California African-American Museum in Exposition Park.
The show proves, among other heartening things, that there are those who thrive on difficult and improbable challenges. Lewis was born around 1843 to a black father and a Chippewa mother. She attended Oberlin College, where she was accused of poisoning two roommates. She was cleared, but not before a group of whites beat her half to death. She was 4 feet tall.
She became a neo-Classical sculptor and moved to Boston. In 1867 she carved her signature marble “Forever Free” to celebrate the constitutional abolition of slavery. The statue depicts an unchained male standing guard over a woman kneeling in prayer. Another piece, “The Old Arrow Maker,” shows its Native American subject seated with a young woman. A catalog essay suggests that this is a mating ritual. It’s nice to imagine the man is teaching the girl to make arrows so she can hunt too.
Lewis--nicknamed “Wildfire"--warmed the generically chilly neo-Classical style with a paradoxical combination of gentle self-effacement and flinty determination.
May Howard Jackson and Meta Warrwick Fuller were both born upscale in Philadelphia in 1877. Artistically sympathetic parents afforded each the art education unavailable to the less privileged.
Jackson’s work suggests Beaux-Arts influence and a dash of John Singer Sargent’s social elan. Her plaster “Mulatto Mother and Child” combines tenderness with an energy hinting at Art Nouveau.
Fuller’s work leans two ways. Her “Richard B. Harrison as De Lawd” has some of the easy naturalism of George Caleb Bingham. By contrast, her clay sketch “Man Eating His Heart Out” finds a dash of Goya’s absurdist ferocity.
Three artists are associated with the New York Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s. There’s a whiff of affectionate caricature in Augusta Savage’s small dead-end-kid bust, “Gamin.” Selma Hortense Burke’s “Temptation” hacks three figures from a single stone, giving them a style located somewhere between the medieval and the Expressionist. It, along with an untitled polychrome wooden bas-relief by Mary Elizabeth Prophet, begins to reach outside the European canon and into the Modern.
Elizabeth Catlett Mora and Beulah Woodard represent the West Coast. Woodard was born in Yakima, Wash. Her work hints at the Northwest’s metaphysic, but her “Bad Boy” is pure delightful realist caricature. Catlett went to Mexico in 1946, joining a group of African American artists admiringly clustered around the Mexican muralists. She married artist Francisco Mora and, after some political unpleasantness with U.S. immigration service, became a Mexican citizen. Her suave, life-size wood “Political Prisoner” is flatly one of the finest works on view.
The catalog aptly identifies the most contemporary art here as a hybrid of “Ancestralism and Modernism.” The imaginative, syncretic originality that wafts from the work of both Geraldine McCullough and Barbara Chase-Riboud is bracingly impressive.
McCullough works in a variety of sheet metals. Her recent lion-size “Echo 5" has a pagan decorative abandon that somehow combines the opulence of pre-Columbia with the spiritual power of historic Africa. The piece creates the aura of a lush crouching Maya goddess that is mutating simultaneously into woman, antelope, Pterodactyl and Yoruban deity. It is in the very best sense an act of back-to-the-future science fiction.
Chase-Riboud is a bit more restrained and witty in flaunting decorative polish in marble and shiny brass. “Cleopatra’s Door” and “Cleopatra’s Twin” seem to say, “OK, I have a fantasy of being a beautiful ancient queen, so what?” Her “Malcolm X” is an abstract breast-plate trailing silken ropes. Her wall relief shelves “Paradiso” and “Poet Walking” stroll through centuries of imagination with complete ease.
The exhibition’s edifying combination of education and artistic revelation make it virtually mandatory. It was organized for Philadelphia’s Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum by guest curators Leslie King-Hammond and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin.
* California African-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; through Nov. 16, closed Mondays, (213) 744-7432.