Recognizing Black Women Who Broke Barriers In The Arts

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Lorraine Hansberry Portrait Session

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Undoubtedly, Black is beautiful. The term originated and gained traction in the 1960s after photographer Kwame Brathwaite organized a fashion show that highlighted the beauty of Black women. The initiative evolved into the Black is Beautiful movement. Black beauty transcends physicality, though. Under its umbrella is the Black aesthetic—the beauty rendered through Black art and creativity. In the days of yore, making Black beauty emphatically clear while reaching masses was not an easy undertaking. 

Black swagger and elegance is now on full display. Today, social media makes viewing images of Black beauty a commonplace occurrence. Notable platforms help make Black art accessible. An appropriately curated timeline can lead people to unique and immaculate art. Artists can showcase their work if they dare to step into the light. Of course, this wasn’t always the case, specifically, for Black women. Women artists had difficult roads to travel in order for their artwork to be seen, felt, heard. Those roads took years to pave, but nonetheless, ground was broken and laid for Black women by Black women. 

For Black History Month, MADAMENOIRE shines a light on the foremothers of Black art. These women have and are still pushing the boundaries in art. These women have made bold, creative moves. They have been given their flowers in one form or another, but MN continues to place petals at their feet.

 

Florestine Perrault Collins

Florestine Perrault Collins played a major role in capturing the beauty of Black celebration. Perrault Collins was born in New Orleans to free black people in the 1800’s. As the oldest of six, Perrault Collins left school and began working to help her family financially. Photography became the means in which she was able to contribute. At the age of 14, she began crafting photos that emphasized beauty, sophistication and elegance. She worked in tandem with her subjects to create moments that were outside of the toil of work. As a Creole woman, Perrault Collins used her looks to help advertise and market her skills. She often passed as a white woman. In a profession dominated by whites and men she stood out, often using her portrait in local newspapers to attract potential clients. Not only did her efforts help her family, her work became foundational in documenting the beauty of Blackness. Her skill would eventually make her sought after. She openly claimed her Blackness and turned her lens mostly toward Black women and children. The Art Story states that “she challenged the pervasive stereotypes of the time about black women.” Her work and life have been explored in the film, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. Perrault Collins’s work continues to be exhibited in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. 

 

Louvenia “Kitty” Black Perkins 

Louvenia “Kitty” Black Perkins began her career as a designer for children’s clothing. Her work sold in major chain stores such as Bloomingdales and Sears. In her late 20s, Black Perkins entered a contest to design clothing for Mattel’s Barbie line. Black Perkins’s design was considered “too elaborate for mass production” but her talent was evident and she became a permanent employee for Mattel in 1971. The original Barbie made its debut in 1959 and generated billions of dollars in sales and was modeled after white women. It took nearly two decades before Mattel decided to create a Black Barbie. When the time came, Black Perkins was tapped to design it. The Black Barbie featured a bold red dress and chunky gold, drop down earrings; it was the first in a long line of fashion forward Black Dolls. 

Black people have long observed the tradition of doll-making, but Black Perkins’s contribution opened the door for other dollmakers to sell to the masses. Black dolls with Black features exist on a global scale. Finding representation in toys has long been a problem for Black children. Movies, TV shows and toys, often turn a blind eye to the Black consumer base. Today Black dolls are  modeled in the image of beautiful brown skin, wearing kinky curly hair, braids and twists. As an innovator, Kitty Black Perkins is one of the reasons.

 

Kara Walker 

Kara Walker is a visual artist with enormous talent. Walker is responsible for creating a multitude of paintings, silhouettes and installations that have left an indelible impact on the contemporary art world. Walker’s work is equal parts historical, passionate and ambitious. Born in 1979, Walker grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. 

In 2014, Walker created, A Subtlety, her most infamous work. Installed in a decommissioned Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York, A Subtlety stood 35 feet tall. Also known as The Marvelous Sugar Baby, the sphinx-like mammy figure made purely of sugar, the centerpiece was provocative in its construction. Paying homage to the women that labored as a result of sugar production. Women that harvested the cane and shaped the substance into deserts to satisfy their oppressors. Walker’s installation was a monumental moment for a Black woman artist. 

Though, largely known for the racial elements of her work, Walker’s initial intention was to focus on the intersections of race, gender, class and queerness. Walker says in an interview with The Gaurdian: “I think what’s interesting – and maybe a little bit ‘I’m gonna take everything I do about power and desire – and use the tropes of the slave narrative or the slave romance, like the antebellum romance, as the way to talk about these themes because this is something that clearly won’t go away. It will just keep being an unaddressed bugaboo in American culture.” Creating work with “power and desire” is what Walker continues to do. 

 

Betye Saar 

Betye Sarr is a nonagenarian and living legend. At the age of 39 she began to create art as a full-time occupation. According to The Smithsonian “The death of Martin Luther King, Jr., prompted Sarr to produce works based on racial slurs that were common in advertising and stereotypes of blacks preserved by white folklore.” The turmoil and strife present in America during the Civil Rights Era helped Saar begin to craft her vision. She is known for her assemblages. Her pieces are commentary on society and a personal exploration of herself. Saar uses unique materials to tell both her story as a Black woman and the story of Black People. The materials include fabric from her own clothing, charms from the Voodoo religion, and instruments, like banjos, just to name a few items. Her use of black collectables was revolutionary in the seventies. She created a lane for black women, like Kara Walker, after her, to thrive. Saar continued to producing groundbreaking art throughout the decades creating masterpieces, Sambo Banjo and Samsara. In the last few years her work has been exhibited across the nations most prestigious galleries, including the Moma. The Art Story has charted some of her work throughout the years. In a recent work,  she explores the theme of loss with a vintage ironing board. She is one of the first Black women to attain such acclaim in the world of assemblage art. She blazed a trail that cannot be ignored.

 

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry is the first Black woman to have a play, A Raisin in the Sun, featured on Broadway. Hansberry, a Chicago native, faced racial violence during her youth. Her family was harassed by racist neighbors in the mostly white neighborhood where she grew up. The harassment led to her family suing those that would dispossess them of their home. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1940, where it was ruled that the Hansberry family had a right to remain in their home. She never forgot the formative experience that would later inspire A Raisin in the Sun. For her efforts, Hansberry was the youngest and first Black person awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Hansberry became a champion for queer rights before the term became popular. Under a pen name. L.H.N, Hansberry became an intersectional advocate. As a lesbian, Hansberry worked with the Daughters of Bilitis writing, “…homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.” Hansberry’s star was dimmed when she passed from pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. In honor of her greatness, famed Civil Rights Activist and singer Nina Simone penned the famous song, Young Gifted and Black (1969). Hansberry’s gift opened a door to Broadway that can never be closed. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was adapted to film more than once and the play continues to be reproduced on stages across the world.

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