Museums Celebrate the Black Women Artists History Has Overlooked

See their work. Know their names. Learn their stories.


By Priscilla Frank, Arts and Culture Reporter
The Huffington Post, February 20, 2017 (Updated February 24, 2017)


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On the first day of Black History Month, the good people at Google blessed the internet with a doodle honoring Edmonia Lewis, the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn global recognition as a fine arts sculptor.

Lewis, who grew up while slavery was still legal in the United States, became known for her hand-carved, marble sculptures of influential abolitionists and mythological figures. In part because Lewis made all of her sculptures by hand, few originals or duplicates remain intact today. She died in relative obscurity in 1907, and, to this day, remains lesser known than many of her white, male contemporaries. 

This well-deserved tribute to Lewis got us thinking about the other black women artists whose contributions to the history of art have been similarly overlooked or undervalued. So we reached out to museums across the country, asking which artists past and present deserve our attention, too. Below are nine of those artists: 

1. Pat Ward Williams (b. 1948)

Pat Ward Williams is a Los Angeles-based contemporary photographer whose work explores the personal and political lives of African-Americans. Initially, the artist set out to disrupt the homogenous way black life was captured on camera. “We always looked so pitiful, like victims,” she told the LA Times. “I knew I was a happy person. There were aspects of the black community that weren’t being shown.”

Attempting to break past photography’s tendency to linger on surfaces, Williams incorporates other media and methodology into her process, yielding mixed media collages that collapse past and present, history and imagination.

Her most famed work, featured above, features a photo of a bound black man chained to a tree, pulled from a 1937 issue of Life magazine. “Who took this picture?” Williams writes in the margins of the photo. “How can this photograph exist?”

Jamillah James, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, wrote to The Huffington Post: “Pat Ward Williams’ prescient, complex meditations on race, history, and representation, such as her landmark “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” (1986), resonate with a particular urgency and relevance in today’s cultural climate. Her combination of photography, found materials, and text engages viewers in a perceptual tug of war between what they see, their own associations, the artist’s voice, and the weight of history.”

Image: Pat Ward Williams, "Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock," 1986, wood, tar paper, gelatin silver prints, film positive, paper, pastel, and metal, overall: 61 13/16 x 108 1/4 x 3 in. (157 x 275 x 7.6 cm)&nbsp

Shared courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.