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Artist profile: Clementine Hunter
Cotton Harvest (1960s). Available at Barnebys.

by Robyn Ashley

LONDON.- From the deep Southern state of Louisiana during a time of instability and peril for African-Americans emerged one of the world’s most renowned folk artists, Clementine Hunter. Born in 1886 into a previously-enslaved family, Hunter grew up on the Hidden Hill Plantation and later the Melrose Plantation, which had been owned and constructed by legendary slave-turned-businesswoman, Marie Thérèse Coincoin. With little education, Hunter spent her adolescence picking cotton, cooking, cleaning and making goods for the household.

The Melrose Plantation was often inhabited by passing artists who were friends of the plantation owners, including Alberta Kinsey, who supposedly encouraged Hunter to begin painting. Some time later, the writer François Mignon, who was staying at the plantation, claims that Hunter found some tubes of paint left behind by a guest and showed the Frenchman what she had created with them; Mignon admired the reminiscent, vibrant scenes of plantation life, pushing Hunter to produce more works.

Hunter continued to balance her work and domestic duties whilst exploring her artistic interests, reserving the late hours of the night for her creativity. Now into her 50s, Hunter used any surface available as a canvas for her work: soap boxes, paper bags, milk jugs and other discarded items. Using bold colours and simple landscapes, Hunter depicted scenes from plantation-worker life, from gruelling, daily work to touching social occasions. Her works were sold to visitors of Melrose for 25 to 50 cents, whilst those displayed in the local drugstore had a higher price of 1 dollar.

By the 1970s, Hunter’s works had begun to capture the attention of the public, leading to exhibitions in museums and galleries across the States; she was also the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In recognition of her achievements, the Northwestern State University of Louisiana awarded her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the age of 100.

Despite her success, Hunter led a simple life and continued to live in poverty on the Melrose Plantation up until her death in 1988. By the end of her life, Hunter had produced more than 5,000 paintings - some of which sell at auction for thousands of dollars. Today, the Melrose Plantation is inundated with visitors eager to see the vivid murals left behind on the walls of the ‘African House’ by the inspiring artist.

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