Sculptor Augusta Savage’s Towering Impact on the Harlem Renaissance
When I was in elementary school in the early 1990s, I would occasionally beg my mother for money to buy a book from the Scholastic Books circular. One year, I asked for a title called Great Women In the Struggle, the second volume in the “Book of Black Heroes” series. Its purple cover featured black-and-white pictures of iconic black women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Judith Jamison, and many others from all sorts of disciplines and walks of life. Only a short passage was devoted to each figure, and while that wasn’t enough to dig into the meat of their lives, it was a start—a spark of inspiration—especially given the dearth of black children’s books at the time. (According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, books created by black authors and illustrators comprised between 1 and 4 percent of all children’s books published between 1990 and 1995.)
Among the women included in that book was the sculptor, educator, and community organizer Augusta Savage. Although the text on the page was brief, the picture of the beautiful black woman standing next to her larger-than-life sculpture made an impression on my eight-year-old self.
Today, as a curator, I seek to increase equity and visibility for marginalized cultural producers. But back then, I had no inkling of the advocacy and curatorial work that lay ahead of me as an adult or the full breadth of Savage’s contributions to the black art and artists in the 20th century. Her impact on the social and cultural milieu of the arts communities of her era and her pursuit of equity along gender and racial lines have had long-lasting implications on American art history.
Throughout her life, Savage championed black artists, making space for their work in America and on the world stage, and fighting for it to be valued just as much as that of white peers. Recently, I have relished seeing her name and work celebrated. The most significant project championing the artist’s legacy is the traveling exhibition “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman,” curated by art historian Jeffreen Hayes at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, through April 7th. (A version of the show will open at the New-York Historical Society on May 3rd, and will subsequently appear at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University in Philadelphia and the Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.)
“Renaissance Woman” is the first exhibition focused on the full weight of Savage’s venerable career. Born in 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida, as a child, the artist fashioned figures from the region’s distinctive red clay dirt. Savage’s family did not support her artmaking, but she persisted. After graduating from the State Normal College for Colored Students (now Florida A&M University) in Tallahassee, in 1921, she made her way to New York City. Savage had come to New York to study at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, but there is no doubt that the city’s emergence as a bustling hub of black culture had its draw.
While it would later be codified as the
Savage was awarded a prestigious scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris in 1923. This accomplishment should have meant a summer studying sculpture in France—however, upon discovering that she was the sole black woman of the 100 selected students, the all-white, all-male American selection committee rescinded her offer. The incident became a major scandal, reported in New York Amsterdam News, the New York Times, the Negro World, and many other notable newspapers.
Savage did not allow the racist slight to go unanswered; she responded with a searing open letter published in the New York World:
“I hear so many complaints to the effect that Negroes do not take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them. Well, one of the reasons why more of my race do not go in for higher education is that as soon as one of us gets his head above the crowd there are millions of feet ready to crush it back again to that dead level of commonplace thus creating a racial deadline of culture in our Republic. For how am I to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity?”
The Fontainebleau incident showed that Savage was formidable and eloquent. For a woman of color to stand up and speak at that time was more than unusual, it was revolutionary. This was a formative moment for Savage, one that moved her toward arts-based activism for the black community.
Thrust into a new kind of renown, the artist was commissioned to create busts for the likes of sociologist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, Jamaican-born Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, and NAACP leader and orator William Pickens Sr., among others. Although her artistic status was on the rise, to make ends meet, Savage labored as a domestic worker and a steam laundress while continuing to cultivate her studio practice.
In 1929, Savage was awarded a Rosenwald fellowship to study in Paris for her sculpture Gamin, well-known today for its expressiveness. In Paris, she studied at the feet of masters, exhibited at the Grand Palais and other prestigious venues, and worked with the countless talented people from across the black world who had also made their way to the City of Lights, then the center of the art world. During her time abroad, Savage received another Rosenwald fellowship, as well as funds from the Carnegie Foundation and community members in New York and elsewhere. With this support, Savage was able to travel to Belgium, France, and Germany, where she studied sculpture in the region’s cathedrals and museums.
Savage returned to New York in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. Determined to share what she had learned in Europe, the artist opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Craft, where she offered free or pay-as-you-go drafting, painting, printmaking, and sculpture courses to Harlemites. In 1937, in partnership with the federally funded
In 1939, the World’s Fair commissioned Savage to create what is now one of her most famous works. The Harp, also known as Lift Every Voice And Sing, was inspired by the Negro National Anthem written by brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson. Though now lost, The Harp featured black singers rendered as the strings of the instrument, the sound board and the arm of the harp formed by the hand of God.
Due to financial constraints, Savage primarily worked in plaster; she simply could not afford to cast her works in bronze, as was the standard for serious sculptors of the day. Accordingly, the majority of her works, including The Harp, have been lost to history. This presented a considerable challenge to the curators of “Renaissance Woman.”
As Hayes explained, to supplement the exhibition, she “filled it out with works by some of [Savage’s] well-known students.” Yet another challenge was to keep Savage central to the presentation. “It would be very easy to fill the gallery with Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden,” she said. So in addition to Savage’s work and that of her students and peers, Hayes included archival materials, such as Savage’s letters around the Fountainbleu incident.
Contextualizing Savage’s sculpture practice within her community-organizing and education work creates a fuller picture of her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and black arts communities as a whole. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, which features essays by scholars including Kirsten Pai Buick and Bridget R. Cooks, illuminates Savage’s life and work in a contemporary moment when black women—and non-white artists generally—continue to struggle against discriminatory practices in the art world and beyond. (A study released this past March shows that even today, 85 percent of artists in American museum collections are white, and 87 percent are men.) The work of balancing the histories of gender and race-based discrimination is yet to be behind us. We can look back on Augusta Savage’s work as an example of how we might forge a path toward true equality.
Niama Safia Sandy
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