Celebrating Black Artists in UMMA’s Collection

In honor of Black History Month (and continuing to celebrate Black history throughout the year), the UMMA Student Engagement Council would like to highlight African American artists in the UMMA collection. Black History Month shines a light on the history and experiences of African Americans. Through art, African American artists have and continue to share and explore their experiences and identities. As we reflect on Black History Month, we’d like to share some of our favorite African American artists and their works you can find at UMMA.

Celebrating Black Artists in UMMA’s Collection

Written by Lea Baker and Emily Considine

Jacob Lawrence, "Champions," 1953, tempera over black colored pencil on wood board. Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis. 1997/1.530 - View this work on the UMMA Exchange

Jacob Lawrence and Glenn Ligon 
By Lea Baker

As I looked through the UMMA collection, two artists that I have always been drawn to are Jacob Lawrence and Glenn Ligon. If you look at their work, you will notice how different their pieces are in style and technique, but both of their works navigate the perception and representation of African Americans in art and in their personal lives.

Jacob Lawrence was an American painter born in 1917. He was one of the first nationally recognized African American artists, becoming a precedent for future African American artists. His works represent the lives and struggles of African Americans through his vibrant and abstract style, which he called Dynamic Cubism

Lawrence’s pieces Builders (The Family) c.1974 and Champions c.1953, found in the collection at UMMA, show his interest in depicting the lives of African Americans. Builders (The Family) uses his recurring interest in builders as subject matter. The builders are contrasted to the well-dressed family, yet they are all connected through their colorful clothing. Although they belong to different classes, Lawrence represented African Americans as part of the upper class and working class, showing the various intersections of identities that exist in the United States.

Lawrence created artwork to convey the experiences and feelings of African American identity that he personally encountered. Lawrence created a new narrative of African American representation in art, empowering artists to follow his footsteps. I find this immensely important because art is where we go to reflect on ourselves and our positions in the world. Lawrence’s work demands you to look at his bright primary colors and reflect racial and social identities.

Glenn Ligon is a New York-based artist born in 1960 who uses literature and American history to inspire and form his artworks. His best-known works are his text-based paintings consisting of bold black lettering against a white background. The two pieces that I am going to explore in this blog are part of a series of four etchings, the other two consisting of the same black lettering but with a black background and quotes from Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man.”

In Ligon’s piece Untitled c. 1992, he quoted the line “I Do Not Always Feel Colored” from the 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by the African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, which explores the idea of the social construction of skin color. He prints this line repeatedly in his bold black lettering against a white background. By using stencils and oil crayons to create the lettering, Ligon is able to play with the boundaries of the letters and words, playing on the idea of race of not having such strict boundaries as well. The text at the top of the piece is clearly printed to grab the attention of the viewer, but becomes muddled towards the bottom, showing Ligon’s complex feelings towards his personal identity versus the public’s perceptions of his identity. 

Another piece in UMMA’s collection by Ligon is also titled Untitled c. 1992. In this painting, Ligon printed another quote repeatedly in the same manner as the piece discussed above. Stating, “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background,” which was written by Hurston. Ligon again expresses the feeling of external pressures placing him into a certain identity. 

Being aware of Hurston’s essays are not necessary as a viewer in Ligon’s opinion, however he believes that the meaning of his paintings become more profound with the knowledge of the literature. The quotes alone make the viewer think of the complexities of African American identities.

Glenn Ligon’s pieces demand your attention with a message about the black identity in America that makes the viewers rethink their own position in affecting one’s identity. Ligon wants you to think about racism in America and how it feels to navigate racism as an African American. 

You can find Jacob Lawrence and Glenn Ligon’s works on the UMMA Exchange and in major museums all over America.

Naomi Dickerson and Lester L. Johnson
By Emily Considine

A few years ago, I’d have been the first to say abstract art wasn’t really my “thing” — even if the term “abstract art” is such a vague category that I now think it’s impossible for anyone to truly claim they don’t like any of it. However, since getting involved at UMMA, I’ve been exposed to the work of three African-American abstract artists who have definitely changed my mind. I’ve written about the monumentality of Cullen Washington Jr.’s work before (whose The Public Square you should definitely check out if you haven’t already), but this month I want to spotlight the art of some perhaps lesser-known Detroit-based artists, Lester L. Johnson and Naomi Dickerson.

Lester L. Johnson is an artist who earned his B.F.A. and his M.F.A. at the University of Michigan. For decades, he has explored color and geometry in energetic abstract collages that draw from his own African and Native American heritage as well as from his love of contemporary jazz musicians. Each of his works is uniquely profound to look at, using patterns and repetition — as well as deliberate breaking of pattern — in different ways, celebrating the beauty of cultural interchange and individuality. You can find out more about him and view more of his work on his website.

There are two pieces of Johnson’s work at UMMA, One for Gladys Knight and Total Eclipse. They’re both mesmerizing, but I have a particular fascination with Total Eclipse for its illusion of structure. At first, it seems to be rigidly following some kind of rule of pattern-making. However, the more the viewer spends time with it, the harder it is to make sense of the work. There are no real rules. All structures, all laws, all patterns are an illusion.

Naomi Dickerson is an artist who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University, where she also taught painting for a time. In the 1970s, she was an assistant to the curator of graphic arts at the Detroit Institute of Art. Her work, often linear and/or constructive pieces that transcend the boundaries of artistic mediums, has garnered many awards and grants.

Second Score for Black Opera is a lithograph print of Dickerson’s that was exhibited at UMMA along with Johnson’s Total Eclipse and One for Gladys Knight as part of a movement of artists in the 1960s and 1970s using experimentation and abstract art to find their own agency in a fraught sociopolitical landscape. In this work, which explicitly identifies itself as “for Black Opera,” at first appears as a neat array of similar grayscale marks and then reveals itself, upon closer inspection, to be full of variety in color, direction, depth, and density. No mark, however initially similar, is exactly the same as any other. It feels like looking at music, but music that can only be made from gathering hundreds of unique individuals. I cannot speak to what Dickerson intended to convey with this piece, but it makes me think about both the beautiful art that African Americans have created and continue to create as well as a warning against viewing any one racial group as monolithic.

Notably, it’s difficult to find public information about Naomi Dickerson online. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense — she has over ten pieces of artwork in the DIA’s permanent collection, for example, and has had her work featured widely in many other exhibitions. It seems that she has been active in making art at least into the early 2000s, and according to an Eastern Michigan University article from 1980, she was, at one point, living in Paris, France. I can’t say for certain why she’s such an enigma, but her artwork definitely deserves more recognition. It’s so easy to get lost in the vast abstract worlds she creates.

Emily Considine is a senior BFA student in Art & Design at the University of Michigan, hoping to become an illustrator. In addition to her involvement with UMMA, she’s done various illustrations, comics, and design work for Arts at Michigan, Forbidden Stew, and ArtsEngine. You can find her most nights during the school year at The Michigan Daily, where she manages the Opinion page.

Lea Baker is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Art History and minoring in Entrepreneurship. Currently, she is the Marketing Director of Girl Up Michigan, where she manages a platform for students to spread awareness about current events. She also has made numerous infographics for Girl Up. She is interested in intersectionality, identity, and art. At the UMMA, she hopes to be able to create more events and opportunities for students to get involved.

Read More About UMMA Student Bloggers

About the Authors

Read More From UMMA's Student Blog