Correcting the Canon: The African American Feminist Art of Meta Fuller

by Renée Ater
University of California Press, 2011

"Mary Turner: A Silent Protest" by Meta Fuller.

Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence, a 1919 sculpture by Meta Fuller, depicts a woman cradling an infant on a base.

The sculpture’s historical, political, and moral force derives from its historical context: the grisly event that Professor Leon Litwack narrated in his essay “Hellhounds”:

After learning of the death of her husband, Mary Turner––in her eighth month of pregnancy––vowed to find those responsible . . . and have them punished in the courts. For making such a threat, a mob of several hundred men and women determined to “teach her a lesson.” After tying her ankles together, they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman’s abdomen. The infant fell from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member of this Valdosta, Georgia mob crushed the baby’s head beneath his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into Mary Turner’s body, completing the work of the mob.

For the past twenty years, I have started my university courses “African American Art” and “The Critical Vision: A History of Social Commentary in Art” with a discussion of this powerful image. No students remain unmoved after hearing this horrific account of Mary Turner’s murder. They see how the horror of lynching has been a grotesque feature of American racial history and how socially conscious artists, including Fuller, have illuminated this tragic reality. They discuss how socially conscious artworks can serve as profound historical correctives, augmenting the incomplete narratives of conventional history texts and teaching.

Artists like Meta Fuller need far greater representation within contemporary scholarship generally and art history specifically. It is no secret that a black woman artist addressing political topics would receive little notice in critical circles. Her triple marginalization, even in an era of rhetorical multiculturalism, has been virtually an insurmountable barrier to genuine inclusion in the art historical canon.
Renée Ater’s new book, Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller, goes a long way in correcting the glaring omission of one of the key African American woman artists of the twentieth century. The author is explicit in her objective: “Today… Fuller is marginalized, invisible, and isolated from serious scholarship. I write to rectify that situation.” Her book proceeds methodically to add Fuller to her seminal place in twentieth century American art history.

The earliest part of Remaking Race and History provides a biographical sketch of Meta Fuller. Born in 1877, she grew up in a middle-class black environment in Philadelphia, discovering early on her artistic talents and inclinations. As a young woman, she spent three years in Paris, where the works of Auguste Rodin left a powerful impression on her, subsequently influencing her sculpture throughout her career. Overall, her sojourn in Paris allowed her to escape, at least temporarily, the racist and sexist gallery system in the American art world.

On her return to the United States, she met Solomon Fuller, a Liberian-born physician, who proposed marriage in 1906. Three years later, she married Dr. Fuller and moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where he worked at Westborough State Hospital and at the Boston University Medical School. The marriage affected her artistic life. Like most marriages at the time, it was a patriarchal arrangement, where she was expected to prepare the meals, clean the house, and raise the children.

Meta Fuller made her art during the day while her children were at school or in the evenings after finishing her domestic chores. Her husband was not especially supportive of her aspirations, and she had to rely to external assistance to advance her creative activities. As the book reveals, Fuller’s correspondence indicates that she felt stifled and that her housekeeping responsibilities prevented her from pursuing the artistic calling that would imbue her life with the deeper meaning she sought.

Silent Sorrow

"Silent Sorrow" by Meta Fuller.

Fortunately, she found a powerful supporter in Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois. He asked her to produce a sculpture for an exposition celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, for which she received only the cost of the materials. But this commission enabled her to enter the orbit of civic activism, and she participated in civil rights and feminist activities in Framingham. Among other things, she protested the showing of the infamous racist film The Birth of a Nation in a local movie theater and she was involved in the woman’s suffrage movement. All of this infused her work with a strong political focus that lasted throughout her artistic career.

The major focus of Remaking Race and History is on the three major expositions where Meta Fuller exhibited her artworks. The first was at the Negro Building at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia in 1907. Her effort sought to contest the dominant view of white supremacy and black inferiority by highlighting African American achievement. This reflected the early twentieth century theme of “racial uplift,” a theme that figures as diverse as Du Bois and Booker T. Washington supported.

Fuller’s work in the Exposition was a series of historical dioramas that provided a positive view of black history from slavery to her day. They included images of blacks in respectable middle class roles that strikingly countered the racist stereotypes of the era. The art was not especially distinctive. The works are reminiscent of dioramas that viewers typically see, even now, in natural history museums. The larger question was whether it was appropriate at all to display her work as well as other artifacts and documents in a segregated “Negro Building.” In light of those deeply racist times, a compelling argument could be made for her participation. Fuller’s artwork was the major highlight of the overall black presentation, and her displays about fugitive slaves, the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and black soldiers, farmers, contractors, and others brought a vision of progress and respectability to audiences that had rarely even imagined anything except African American docility and servility.


"Emancipation" by Meta Fuller.

Fuller’s participation also elevated her stature and visibility in African American art circles, making her prominent as a “race artist.” In 1913, six years before she produced Mary Turner, she created another powerful sculpture for the National Emancipation Exposition in New York City. Emancipation was produced for the African American community and more fully represents Fuller’s mature sculptural style. Du Bois was a key organizer of the event, commissioning her to produce the artwork. Like many middle class African Americans, he may have been disturbed at the semi-nude figures of this work.

Emancipation, however, can and should be read at much deeper levels. The young figures, one man and two women standing on an equal footing, emerge from the tree of knowledge and emerge as full and autonomous human beings. Newly free, they face the challenges of forging lives in a continuingly hostile society. Their determined, resolute expressions reflect their will to succeed, even if the struggle takes several generations. Their partial nudity is scarcely sexual and salacious; rather, it reflects their youthful bodies and spirits, which will lead them to sustain their people to new heights of achievement in a free society.

The book’s final example addresses Meta Fuller’s work from the America’s Making Exposition in 1921, held in the 71st Street Armory Building in New York City. At the suggestion of Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People commissioned the artist to produce an allegorical sculpture of Ethiopia for the event. Fuller created a shrouded female figure entitled Ethiopia. It was one of the most remarkable Pan-African artworks of that era.

Ethiopianism was a term that at the time that stood for a reawakened consciousness about Africa generally and that invited all people of African origin to see that continent as the source of their creativity and vitality. Fuller’s artwork exemplifies those ideals. She presents a regal black woman representing Africa reclaiming and asserting its proper role in the world. Ethiopia’s message, like all of Fuller’s major works, combines both race and gender, making her a powerful forerunner of artistic themes that have come to art world prominence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


"Ethiopia" by Meta Fuller.

Emancipation was also a response to Western societies that had promoted a caricature of Africa as a continent of barbaric tribes, devoid of genuine civilization and achievement––a view that permeated the dominant entertainment and art establishments in Europe and the United States. Fuller’s work helped her audiences to imagine an African history and culture that Western society had denied, even stolen. It was a powerful, compelling vision of back heritage. Even now, a bronze cast of Ethiopia stands in the reading room of the Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture in New York, constantly reminding visitors of the contemporary resonance of that message.

Renée Ater’s book will encourage art historians and other scholars to probe more deeply into the continuing gender and racial gaps of their fields. Meta Fuller’s powerful sculptures belong centrally in surveys and specialized treatments of American art history and elsewhere. Even more important, the book should encourage a wider examination of the other historic African American female sculptors who remain marginalized in the scholarly canon: Edmonia Lewis, Nancy Prophet, Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, Beulah Woodard, P’lla Mills, as well as contemporary figures like Elizabeth Catlett, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Artis Lane. In 2012, the gap between the rhetoric of inclusion and the reality of exclusion remains huge. Remaking Race and History narrows it a little; that process must accelerate in all features of human accomplishment.


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