The Challenge of Diversity
I was born after the age of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and yet his life and leadership still have an impact on me. I remember vividly the times in my public education we’d study him, and the Civil Rights movement in America, resulting in both inspiration and heartbreak at the same time.
Each year on this national holiday, we probably all reflect on how much progress remains to be made in elevating the African-American experience in our culture, and how much work lies ahead in fulfilling the promise of equality and justice in our society. That’s a great and important thing.
What is unique to me today, is connecting the legacy of Dr. King to something I now think about a lot — the power of art and artists in helping us understand the intangible, and in expressing the feelings and ideas that words alone cannot.
As Executive Director of Michigan Legacy Art Park, a post I’ve held now for over a year, I’m constantly hoping and looking for ways our work can reflect the full diversity of the world we live in. Our Board of Directors, volunteers, and staff share this aspiration. And I think our supporters and fans do too.
Like so many other arts organizations, our collection is dominated by many artists who share similar backgrounds. Their works are inspiring, and talented, and personal — and we’re proud and privileged to share them with the public. They have stories to tell, and they tell them with passion and creativity.
But we’ve also hoped and worked to share those same opportunities with voices that aren’t always represented well in collections of art: women, people of color, different ethnicities and religious backgrounds, and those from the LGBTQ community.
It’s easy to desire for these artists to find us, easy to hope for chances to salute and include them, easy to imagine we’ll reach better parity … someday. It’s much harder to create this reality, harder to convince everyone they are welcome, and harder to find the resources and connections we need to make these dreams come true.
But we’re committed to this path, and we’re making progress bit by bit.
In the spirit of this holiday and in salute of so many talented creators, here are just a few African-American sculptors whose work you might not know, but who are sure to inspire you (as they have me).
Joseph Beyer, Executive Director Michigan Legacy Art Park
Martin Puryear — Born 1941
During the early years of the Art Park, famed international sculptor Martin Puryear installed “Untitled” hidden among the trees, reflecting his relationship with nature and his unique style of simple, abstract forms of minimalism (inspired in part by his Peace Corps residency in Sierra Leone, Africa and his interest in tribal craftsmanship by people working without technology). This ephemeral sculpture has long-since vanished back into the woods, but his ideas live on.
Richard Hunt — Born 1935
American sculptor with over 125 sculptures on display in the United States. His abstract, contemporary sculpture work is notable for its presence in public displays as early as the 1960s, despite social pressures for the obstruction of African-American art at the time.
Noah S. Purifoy — Born 1917
Purifoy was an African-American visual artist and sculptor, co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, and creator of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. He lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California.
He was the first African American to enroll in Chouinard Art Institute as a full-time student and earned his BFA in 1956, just before his fortieth birthday. He is best known for his assemblage sculpture, including a body of work made from charred debris and wreckage collected after the Watts Riots of August 1965.
“I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be.”
Beulah Ecton Woodard — Born 1895
Woodward was an African-American sculptor and painter based in California and the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. She was an African American artist who specialized in sculpture.
Woodard always found time to support community causes and promote other artists. She was an important organizer of both the Los Angeles Negro Art Association in 1937 and the Eleven Associated Artist Gallery in 1950.
Charles McGee — Born 1924
With a distinguished career spanning eight decades, McGee is recognized internationally as a cultural icon of Detroit. His work is cherished in many contemporary art collections around the world, as well as the permanent collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. In 2008, he was awarded the first Kresge Eminent Artist award.
He has been a significant influence for generations of young artists through teaching and mentoring, as well as founding multiple arts organizations, such as the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) and his own Gallery 7 in 1968. At age 92, McGee oversaw installation of his largest public work, an 11-story mural titled “Unity” in downtown Detroit’s Capitol Park.
Senga Nengudi — Born 1943
Her practice gives new forms to feminist thought, and navigates ways for African-American artists to reclaim their blackness. Her work, emerging in Los Angeles in the 1970s, has often employed materials imbued with geopolitical charge. Throughout her practice, Nengudi reconsiders the social and economic structures that create them.
Nengudi is also a committed educator who frequently takes her pieces outside the gallery setting, using sculpture and movement to give overlooked environments a new symbolic force. Nengudi is a pioneer of her generation, and recent reiterations of her works underscore the continued relevance and importance of her practice.