Collecting Photographs by African-American Women

Photography can be used as a powerful weapon toward instituting political and cultural change.

Carrie Mae Weems

African-American women have a long history of getting behind the lens as photographers, dating back to 1866, but until recently, their oeuvre has not been acknowledged. Women have used photography to document the world through their eyes to bear witness and induce change within their respective societies. Within the last two decades, the art market has awoken to the imagery produced by this group, and have borne fruit to later generations of African American female photographers that use the lens to continue to forge forward the path set before them. Swann Auction Galleries’ June 4, 2020 sale of African American Fine Art features five lots from contemporary women photographers who use the lens to document, critique and challenge their societies and their institutions.

Carrie Mae Weems

Influential artist Carrie Mae Weems, born in 1963, works with text, fabric, audio, digital images, and installation video to rewrite the rules of image-making. Her creativity stems from the vein of Black Feminism, social justice, human experience, and social inclusion.

Black Man with A Watermelon is a photograph from Weem’s iconic series Ain’t Jokin’. Kathryn E. Delmez describes this important, early series as examining “humor as a socially acceptable way to promote officially unacceptable ideologies through unflinching pairings of stage photographs with racist jokes, ideas or phrases.” Ain’t Jokin’ is also the first artist’s series to incorporate text with her photographs. Another photograph from the edition is in the collection of the Smart Museum of Art at The University of Chicago.

The Spirit Soars: Cathedrals and Churches is a later investigation of the role of Christianity in Black life and the comparison of houses of worship of the rural south and industrial north. She uses narrative as a counterpoint to imagery, she recounts stories and myths and invents texts.

Weems has been awarded numerous awards, including a Medal of Arts Award by the US State Department, Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Skowhegan Medal for Photography, Jose H Hazen Rome Prize Fellowship, and a Pollock-Krasner Grant. Her work is included in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, RISD Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and 21C Museum, among others. On January 30, 2020 Swann set the auction record for Weems at $305,000 with the sale of her 1996-97 Chicago Public Art Program commission of seven framed panels with sandblasted text on glass. (Sold in the sale of African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company.)

Related Reading: Collecting Works by African-American Photographers

LaToya Ruby Frazier

A photographer revising the field of social documentary LaToya Ruby Frazier, born in 1982, turns her lens on her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the steel towns of mid-century industry. Her practice is centered around the subjects of family, loss, memory, and class.

Grandma Ruby’s Porcelain Dolls and Gramps on His Bed are from her seminal series The Notion of Family, 2001-04. The series focuses on the history of Ruby Frazier’s family, racism, and economic decline in America’s small towns. In these two images, she invokes memory through symbols of the lives of her grandparents.

Ruby Frazier attended the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (BFA), Syracuse University (MFA), the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. She has been awarded the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for Visual Arts at the American Academy in Berlin and a MacArthur Fellowship.

Related Reading: A Contemporary Collection Highlights African-American Women

Allison Janae Hamilton

Allison Janae Hamilton, born in 1984, is a visual artist working in sculpture, installation, photography, and video. She was born in Kentucky, raised in Florida, and her maternal family’s farm and homestead lie in the rural flatlands of western Tennessee. Hamilton photographs immersive spaces that consider the narrative around the American rural south and how it can be rewritten. Through blending land-centered folklore and personal family narratives, she engages haunting yet epic mythologies that address the social and political concerns of today’s changing southern terrain, including land loss, environmental justice, climate change, and sustainability.

When the Wind Has Teeth has built up a narrative that is inspired by the idea of the Black surrealist landscape. From the artist’s statement, this photograph is “from an ongoing group of works called Sweet Milk in the Badlands. With these artworks, I’m imagining what rural black surrealism can look and feel like. I’m curious about what the model of the epic myth can produce against the backdrop of the American south. Landscape, fantasy, and the haunted self are the themes I keep coming back to while working in photography, sculpture, installation, and taxidermy.”

More from Corey Serrant: A Brief History of AfriCOBRA and Swann in Profile: Corey Serrant

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