Columbia Museum of Art adds 5 works by African American artists to collection

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Columbia Museum of Art adds 5 works by African American artists to collection
Kwame Brathwaite (American, born 1938). Untitled, c. 1970s (negative), 2020 (print). Archival pigment print. Museum purchase. Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

COLUMBIA, SC.- The Columbia Museum of Art announces a series of exciting purchases in the past year of works by contemporary African American artists — Sanford Biggers, Kwame Brathwaite, Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Middleton, and Winston Wingo — that add significantly to its collection.

“These acquisitions highlight the range and impact of Black art and artists, and each of them are important additions to the CMA collection,” says CMA Executive Director Della Watkins. “Representation matters, and the museum takes seriously its commitment to growing the collection to be more reflective of and relevant to the communities we serve. Inclusion was the major impetus behind the total revamp of the collection galleries a few years ago, and it remains a driving force in our work.”

In August 2019, the CMA purchased a corner sculpture by Sanford Biggers (b. 1970) titled Yo-Yo (2019) from Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. Immediately after the purchase was finalized, the work was requested by organizers of the touring retrospective Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch, the first survey of quilt-based works by the New York-based artist. The exhibition touring schedule will run through January 2022 with stops at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, and the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans.

When it comes home in 2022, Yo-Yo will add a compelling new note to the CMA’s contemporary art collection. The work refers to the artist’s ongoing engagement with pre-1900 quilts, their language of patterns, and the African American experience. Biggers considers himself a “late collaborator” with the original quilters by transforming fragments of the historical quilts into new works of art.

Through printed fabric and geometric form, this sculpture also intriguingly intersects with the CMA’s Asian art collection. In the 1990s, Biggers spent three years in Japan, where he became interested in Buddhism’s philosophy and visual forms. In 2003, he returned to Japan to pursue his interest in Zen Buddhism for an artistic residency. Throughout his career, Biggers has found innovative ways to connect the lived Black experience with this language of religious symbols and sacred geometry.

“When I saw the Sanford Biggers piece installed in the corner of the Marianne Boesky gallery, I loved how it threw off the viewer’s expectations in such a playful way,” says CMA Curator Catherine Walworth. “Biggers’ engagement with history, philosophy, and global cultures means there are multiple generous ways Yo-Yo can connect to our collection.”

In November 2019, the museum purchased a polished and welded steel sculpture, Tetramorphic Form (2018), by native South Carolinian Winston Wingo (b. 1952). An award-winning artist working in both painting and sculpture, Wingo is based in Spartanburg, SC, and has created several steel and bronze-cast sculptures as public art commissions in the area. In this work, the artist wanted to create visual tension between highly polished, hard-edged geometric shapes and organic movement. His work is on view in the CMA’s upper atrium.

“Winston Wingo has been calling attention to the human condition for decades, in the face of increasing technological demands on our minds as well as civil unrest and injustice. While this sculpture is abstract, there is much to make of its balance of opposites,” says Walworth.

In August 2020, the CMA finalized the purchase of three additional works of art, including Reclining Nude (c. 1955), a bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012). The only other currently known version can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The CMA worked with Thom Pegg of Black Art Auction in Indianapolis, IN, to acquire this sculpture from private collectors and friends of the artist, Drs. Robert and Jean Nelson Galloway of Houston, Texas. The couple published this sculpture in the 2014 catalog of their collection Unity of Woman: Naturally African.

Catlett was among the first class to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940, where social realist artist Grant Wood encouraged Catlett to make works based on lived experience. She went on to create socially conscious sculptures, paintings, and prints for more than half a century. She also captured the perspectives of her friends and neighbors in Mexico, where she settled in the 1940s and eventually became a naturalized citizen. This sculpture will add depth to the CMA’s previous holdings of two Catlett prints, Sharecropper (1945) and Madonna (1982).

“This Elizabeth Catlett sculpture is incredibly exciting for the CMA. Her experience as an artist, steadfastly forging her way in the art world that was often hostile to her, is gripping and important,” says Walworth. “While reclining female nudes may be seen as passive, in Catlett’s hands, this is a radical statement.”

The museum also purchased a collage by Sam Middleton (1927 – 2015), Symphony in Red (1988), through Wim Roefs at Columbia’s if ART Gallery. This collage offers a myriad of entry points for discussing Middleton’s work in relation to other works in the CMA collection, including, materials, music, and the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. This is the museum’s first acquisition by Middleton, a self-taught artist who grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. The imprint of jazz on Middleton was profound, and the titles of many of his works and their improvisational nature relates to the music.

Like Catlett, Middleton left the United States in search of a more welcoming artistic environment where he could create without the degree of discrimination he suffered at home. In 1955 with a grant from the Whitney Museum that artist Franz Kline helped secure, Middleton went to Mexico City, where he began making collages and shifting from social realism to an expressionist style of image making. Middleton next ventured to various countries in Europe and eventually settled permanently in Schagen, Holland, where he taught and exhibited regularly. His retrospective at the Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst in 2003 was titled Sam Middleton: Poems to Life and included dedications to Middleton by James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, and Ted Joans.

“Sam Middleton’s collage offers visual fireworks,” says Walworth. “He was an artist who loved the improvisation of music and expressed it in his own colorful, buoyant way.”

Finally, the CMA is proud to commemorate its summer 2020 spot on the groundbreaking exhibition tour of Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite — organized by Aperture Foundation, New York, and Kwame S. Brathwaite, the artist’s son and archivist — with the purchase of an untitled, newly released image from the artist’s personal archives through Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles. The traveling exhibition and accompanying book have drawn much-deserved attention to Brathwaite, who used photography to document and influence generations of Black activism. This image from the 1970s continues the story where the exhibition ended and further connects the artist’s work with the work of commercial art as a way to mainstream once-radical ideas, including challenging white beauty standards with Black models.

Like Middleton, Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938) grew up in Harlem during a pivotal time. Together with his brother, Elombe Brath, and friends from the High School of Industrial Art, they founded the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) in 1956. In 1962, the group formed the Grandassa Models to actively promote the self-empowering tagline of “Black is Beautiful” with runway shows and images. Through AJASS, Brathwaite and his friends used a kaleidoscope of arts, including photography, graphic design, music, and fashion, to build a radical movement that attracted people to it with beauty and positive images. Brathwaite continued to contribute to Black publications, and by the 1970s, he was an important image-making photographer for celebrities such as James Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Stevie Wonder.

“Kwame Brathwaite’s story is in full bloom right now, and as a legacy of having hosted this pioneering exhibition, we wanted to acquire an image that would continue that story,” says Walworth. “While we don’t yet know who this model is, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the way Brathwaite composed this shot — that wonderful uplift of her toes and the delicate grid of wire crates as props.”

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