At the Cooper Union with (left to right) Nana Adusei- Poku, Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller, and Wendy N. E. Ikemoto.
This past May, I had the pleasure of attending The Cooper Union’s celebration of Augusta Savage. While listening to educators give their views and share historical information about the Renaissance artist, I compared their information to what I already knew.
For instance, while I knew she grew up poor in the south, I was unaware about her socioeconomic status while she lived in the north and how much hurt her status inflicted upon the success of her career.
I first learned about Savage while visiting my sister in Jacksonville last summer. She took me to the Ritz museum and the administrator there, Adonnica, taught me about the Floridian native. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in her life and work.
Those on the panel at The Cooper Union were: Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller (author of New Negro Artist in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Lights 1922-1934), Wendy N. E. Ikemoto ( an associate curator of American art at the New York Historical Society) and Nana Adusei- Poku (an instructor in the school of Art at Cooper Union).
Ikemoto, the first speaker, spoke in depth about the current exhibition at the New York Historical Society, Augusta Savage Renaissance Women (which I saw afterwards…). She began by explaining the term, Renaissance Women:
I think the phrase renaissance women really gets to the core concept of the exhibition in two ways, first it speaks to the centrality of Augusta Savage and to the great early 20th century flourishing of African American arts that we know of today as the Harlem Renaissance. So, even though Savage is little known today, she was one of the great movers and shakers of the art world in her day. And second,…Renaissance Women speaks to Savages role as a….polymath…someone who is not just an artist but also an educator and activist.
Ikemoto continued by telling us about Savages’ difficult time at Cooper Union as a black woman in 1923, during the Jim Crow era, and how she was set on a ‘racial based arts activism path’ her entire life, fighting for her position in the art world and at the same time being committed to those in her community.
Savage did not try to communicate or dictate a certain style to her students but rather [tried] to communicate a commitment to racial uplift , a commitment to self-definition, a commitment to agency in the representation of ones own self and ones own community…
Augusta Savage left her family in Florida to follow her dream as a sculptor and settled in Harlem, New York. Most times, she survived on will and determination; the same spirit used mostly by our ancestors to keep going. Even though she was an unsupported practicing artist, she did all she could to give back to the community by teaching at the Harlem Community’s Art Studio and even opening an Art Salon. Despite the lack of resources, she reached many artist such as Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, and Norman Lewis. I gather that she sculpted a spirit of charity within the community, by volunteering her talent and time.
I truly believe that one of the amazing human qualities she possessed was the willingness to humbly share the talent she was born with, with the community. She once said, “I created nothing really beautiful…really lasting, but if I could inspire one of the youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess then my monument would be in their work”.
In the middle of Ikemoto’s speech, the Youtube version of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing was played to speak about Savages harp piece also titled Lift Every Voice and Sing.
I felt playing the song was very fitting and timely. Secretly, I hoped Ikemoto would say ‘all rise for the national anthem’ and desired for her to play the entire song. I believe that move would have drove the point home about how Savage worked to uplift her community. It would have encompassed that true unapologetic voice and spirit about what it may have meant to be an artist who was black, female and also considered poor at that time.
When asked why she named the Piece, Lift Every Voice, her response was ‘people need to know we have an anthem’. This was year 1939. The anthem was just written in 1900 (next year it’s 100 years old!) and probably a lot of people had a lot to say about us owning the song as our anthem. It sounds like she was making a point to both African Americans and White Americans alike.
What I believe is Savage did not live a life of fear but took chances to please her own artistic desire. For example, her father did not condone sculpting in his house so she would practice her craft outside of him knowing. As a child, many times she was terribly punished. Yet, that did not stop her desire to sculpt. As if finding acceptance in her own home wasn’t hard enough, she had to go through hurdles to be accepted in the art world. Ikemoto told us about the scholarships she was turned down from because of the color of her skin.
In closing, Ikemoto, informed us about the current goals of museums – apparently, they are working hard to diversify their collections and to develop more inclusive exhibitions. So, the New York Historical Society has developed an initiative called the Equality and Justice for All Initiative, committing exhibition space to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
Hearing this gave me hope. Maybe one day something of mine would be on display at a museum?! It also was very satisfying. I thought, now I should not have to struggle so much when looking for artist my color. For years I visited museums and galleries and found very little that perked my interest.
The next speaker, Adusei- Poku, spoke about Savages literary works. Which I did not know she was also a writer!
Adusei- Poku wrote her speech through rhetorical questions that she posed to the audience. The questions were based on the absence of melancholy surrounding Savage and her contemporaries in relationship to black culture.
She explained the term race women; which ( in the words of Brittney Cooper) are women who enter public racial leadership roles beyond the church in the decades after Reconstruction. They explicitly fashion for themselves a public duty to serve their people with diligent and careful intellectual work and attention to providing intellectual character of the race.
I listed some of questions Adusei-Poku posed which I think were very relevant not only for Savage but for students of color everywhere who contribute to a society that rejects them on some level.
How did [Savage] experience Cooper Union as the only black female student among white peers and teachers? How did she feel when she had to apply for funding and received a scholarship the last minute because her family wasn’t wealthy…?
I am curious what impelled Savage and her contemporaries to push on despite the world around them constantly pulling them down. One of the most popular stories that circulate about Savage is after she submitted the 16-foot sculpture of Lift Every Voice for the 1939 World Fair, it was dismantled under the notion that there was no where to place it and no way to fully care for it. I can’t imagine staying up for hours and creating what Adusei-Poku described as ‘a piece that represents the lifting of the self out of subjugation towards heaven, towards a presence that allows black subjects to be human’ and to later see it destroyed. All we have now are photos of the 16- foot sculpture.
Adusei-Poku continued her questions, was Savage present when the bulldozers rolled over her work? What does it mean to show an enlarge version of the photograph of her in front of her sculpture and not to talk about the ways in which sexism and racism affected her?
For America not to have interest in Savage’s work, for me is no grand surprise. For America to now be interested in her work, also is no grant surprise. In addition to Adusei- Poku, I want to know if there are writings to answer these types of questions? Are there newspaper coverage or magazine interviews stating how Savage dealt with such a loss? Savage’s work wasn’t the only work destroyed there, did anyone care about the artist? Whose work was saved?
Savage, I know, was a fighter and did fight for her work but was against forces with power and money. If you visit the New York Historical Society, you would see what they could find of her work and also letters between herself and a friend of hers, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the institutions that dismissed her. It’s a testament to how African Americans for ages have been struggling to exist in a county that their ancestors built.
The last speaker was Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller (author of New Negro Artist in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Lights 1922-1934). She shared with the community, the most historical facts about Savage’s life. Savage was made more of a human being in her stories and she spoke as if she understood Savage’s aspirations.
Listening, I learned about Savage’s piece, Gamin, which made her famous and enabled her to study in Europe. I found the meaning of Gamin very interesting and wondered why a Harlem Renaissance artist would want to show this part of her community. I thought Harlem Renaissance artist main focus was to show case the uplift of their community? Gamin, on the other hand, shows the community as is. It was Gamin that sent her across the ocean to study in Europe and it’s also now her most represented piece. I think it’s Gamin that also represented her community.
Dr. Leininger-Miller told us about her personal life. She married at 15 and began a life long journey of marriages and child deaths. It seems as if she married three times and in each matrimony dealt with death. One marriage was even abusive. The one that gave her the last name we know her by, Savage.
In closing, it was very meaningful to listen to a lecture about Augusta Savage who was a very educated person. She produced each piece of work with meaning and care. She worked with what she had and gave a lot to a world that tried to break her spirit and determination. Yet, she grabbed on to life’s intangible dreams and molded the impossibles and intangibles into possibles and tangibles.