This beautifully written study focuses on the life and public sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller (1877–1968), one of the early twentieth century’s few African American women artists. To understand Fuller’s strategy for negotiating race, history, and visual representation, Renée Ater examines the artist’s contributions to three early twentieth-century expositions: the Warwick Tableaux, a set of dioramas for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition (1907); Emancipation, a freestanding group for the National Emancipation Exposition (1913); and Ethiopia, the figure of a single female for the America’s Making Exposition (1921). Ater argues that Fuller’s efforts to represent black identity in art provide a window on the Progressive Era and its heated debates about race, national identity, and culture.
Remaking Race and History The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller
"It is not impossible to preach a sermon in a block of granite or cauldron of bronze-it remains with me to interpret it," Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) wrote in a 1917 letter. Fuller understood the powerful ways in which an artist creates meaning through her selected medium. In her opinion, the artist must produce work that is nuanced and intricate in form and content, and not simply didactic. Through thoughtful handling of materials and careful consideration of subject matter, she reconceived the black body and featured it as the central theme of her work. From her position as a woman of African descent living in the United States in the early twentieth century, she sought to reclaim the dignity of African Americans, offering images to counter the negative ones often seen in fine art and the stereotypes prevalent in popular culture.
My interest in Fuller began with her life-size sculpture Ethiopia Awakening (plate 7). I wanted to understand why so much scholarly attention had been focused on a single object, while the rest of her sculpture was overlooked, or at best reduced to a footnote in the historical record. How had this work come to stand for the whole of her artistic production? Contemporary scholars interpret Ethiopia Awakening as a Pan-Africanist work, symbolizing a reawakening of African diasporic identity. The statue, celebrated for ushering in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, seemed to mark a new dawn of black intellectual life and creative production. Few scholars have noted its historical and exhibition contexts or its reception, although these are fundamental to interpreting the work. In The Negro Genius (1937), Benjamin Brawley, then a professor of English at Howard University, was the first scholar to mention that Ethiopia Awakening was commissioned for the America's Making Exposition; some sixty years later the art historian Tritobia Hayes Benjamin also noted that the work was requested for the fair celebrating America's immigrants. I wanted to know more about Ethiopia Awakening within the framework of the America's Making Exposition. Who commissioned the work, and what kind of meaning did they expect from it? What inspired Fuller? What meaning did she intend for the object? How was the sculpture exhibited and received? What was the purpose of the America's Making Exposition? Why did the exhibition's organizers classify African Americans as "honorary immigrants," and why did African Americans consent to participate under such terms? How did Fuller and the black planners envision the work in the context of the fair? And, finally, how has the work continued to have meaning over time? In asking these questions, I found the impetus for the current study.
My aim in this book is to make Fuller's art visible and to define its importance in the history of American art. The canon of American art continues to presume that there is one American art history and one way of telling it. We need to broaden the academic inquiry, for if we do not, we fail to acknowledge the entirety of American culture. Fuller's art and the cultural moment in which she created it reveal the interdependence of art making, race, gender, history, and public culture in the United States during the Progressive era. Early twentieth-century critics hailed Fuller as a significant African American artist of her generation, often linking her to the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Today, however, Fuller, is marginalized, invisible, and isolated from serious scholarship. I write to rectify this situation.
This study balances Fuller's biography as an artist with a social history of her art. I look at how she negotiated race, history, and visual representation in the work she modeled for three early twentieth-century expositions: the Warwick Tableaux, a multifigure set of dioramas for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition (1907); Emancipation, a freestanding group for the National Emancipation Exposition (1913); and Ethiopia Awakening, the figure of a single female for the America's Making Exposition (1921). Although Fuller continued to work intermittently until 1968, she once remarked that these three works were her most significant contribution to "the race."
Fuller trained in the United States and in Paris at a time when few African Americans entered institutions of higher education, let alone art academies. Segregation in all aspects of American life limited African Americans' access to education, employment, housing, and transportation. Disfranchisement precluded political participation and representation. Fuller was the only American black woman to study sculpture abroad in the early twentieth century and to receive recognition and critical acclaim. With Tanner, Fuller occupied a key position between earlier artists of African descent such as the landscape painter Robert Scott Duncanson and the neoclassical sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and the generation of African American artists working in the first third of the twentieth century, including the painters William Edouard Scott and Laura Wheeler Waring and the sculptors Sargent Johnson and Augustus Savage. For many in the black community, Fuller and Tanner represented "Negro genius," the capacity of African Americans to excel despite the obstacles of segregation, disfranchisement, and racism.
Fuller produced sculpture at a moment of great change in American art. The early twentieth century saw U.S. artists moving away from realism toward modernist abstraction. In American sculpture, the human figure remained the principal subject. The Beaux-Arts tradition, represented by the public monuments and funerary sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, coexisted with diverse modes of sculptural expression. including the stylized forms of Paul Manship and Harriet Frishmuth, the social-realist work of Mahonri Young and Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, the abstractions of Alice Morgan Wright and John Storrs, and the direct carvings of John Flannagan and William Zorach. Fuller balanced her interest in the modern, romantic style of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin with the naturalism of the Beaux-Arts tradition. She handled the human figure skillfully and expressed emotional meaning in three dimensions.
The Progressive era, from 1890 to 1920, forms the backdrop to Fuller's life and art. This period has come to symbolize the reform efforts of the middle class, which advocated profound social transformation. White middle-class progressives sought to reengineer industry and government, pushed for economic and social reforms, believed in the power of scientific method and organization to effect change, and had faith in human progress and "social uplift," the effort to improve social, intellectual, and moral standards. The Progressive era was also a time of intense contradictions and ambiguities. Race was the blind spot of white progressives. Consumed by a singular focus on welfare rights, including health, education, and recreation, progressives often overlooked civil rights. They believed in solving social problems by improving the environment and conditions of individual lives and thereby creating a better society, but they also maintained social differences and endorsed segregation as a means to mitigate social conflict and to maintain social order.
By the early twentieth century, the disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans had become entrenched. More than ninety percent of America's black population resided in the South during the period, and they experienced the degradation, violence, and humiliation of the Jim Crow system. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson in favor of "separate but equal" public accommodations on Louisiana trains, in effect affirming local and state laws on segregation across the South and sanctioning racial boundaries in all aspects of life. In the North, subtler forms of segregation persisted. Although Jim Crow policies were seldom written into local or state law, access to housing, employment, and public facilities was often based on the color of one's skin. African Americans were hopeful about the promises of Progressivism, but they were keenly aware of the deepening racial divide in the United States. Stressing education, moral character, and refinement, black American elites believed that racial equality could be achieved through educational, economic, and political reform. The Progressive era, in its push for social reform and disfranchisement, its promotion of social cohesion and segregation, and its assertion of white supremacy and black inferiority-was the context in which Fuller produced her art for the three expositions.
From the late nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, world's fairs and smaller theme-specific expositions were significant cultural events in the United States. These fairs promoted political and social ideals and values to the nation. In elaborate complexes of buildings, displays, and spectacles, organizers and financial backers used the fairs to signal to American and foreign audiences alike the industrial, scientific, agricultural, cultural, and economic strengths of the United States. Starting in 1876 with the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition, organizers promoted fine art as important to the overall civilizing mission of the fairs. Fuller was one of many American artists commissioned to create sculptural and mural programs to decorate the fairs' buildings, and they displayed their work in the fine arts palaces that showcased American artistic talent. Indeed, American artists, both academically trained and self-taught, saw expositions as important locales in which to present their work to large audiences and collectors. In the fine art palaces, the planners celebrated a distinctive American artistic vision, and they promoted sculpture and painting as means to cultivate order, morals, and proper conduct.
Thousands of men and women attended expositions to see technological inventions such as the telephone, awe-inspiring architecture, painting and sculpture from around the world, lavish gardens and fountains, and anthropological exhibits of foreign cultures. Exhibition halls contained displays of human ingenuity, including chemical and pharmaceutical products, mining equipment, agricultural implements, printing presses and typewriters, artificial lighting and X-ray machines, and new modes of transportation. Visitors participated in the pleasure activities of the midways, drinking at German beer halls, purchasing souvenirs at "Turkish" bazaars, riding the Ferris wheel, and taking in "exotic" native villages. U.S. expositions presented American ingenuity on a grand scale and were intended to dazzle their audiences and make them feel part of a sovereign, globally dominant, and modern nation fueled by economic growth.
African Americans wanted to be fully present at U.S. fairs-not to attend only on designated "Negro Days," but also to take part in planning and to participate in events. For the New Orleans World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884-85, African Americans organized the first separate "Negro" section, displaying craftsmanship by black artisans, "women's handiwork" including embroidery, and samples of school work from black industrial schools. The next significant world's fair, the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, limited participation by African Americans to a "Colored American Day." Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells led the protest against this perceived injustice and coauthored a pamphlet titled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the Columbian World's Exposition." Greatly disappointed, African American civic leaders and businessmen were determined to take part in the next world's fair hosted by the United States, the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. Its organizers created a model for future participation by African Americans: a separate Negro Building funded with federal appropriations. The newly conceived buildings and their exhibits focused on black achievement in industry, fine art, publishing (both books and newspapers), crafts, and education. Subsequently, expositions in the South, including the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition in Nashville and the 1901-02 South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition in Charleston, incorporated separate Negro buildings.
Whereas the 1895 Atlanta Exposition established a precedent for black exhibits in separate spaces, at the American Negro Exhibit of the1900 Paris Exposition Universelle Thomas J. Calloway and W. E. B. Du Bois instituted standards for the exhibits based on "empirical sociology." In Paris, Du Bois and Calloway used scientific data-statistical charts, graphs, and reports-to demonstrate the social, economic, and political leadership of African Americans in the modern world. In addition to these displays, the American Negro Exhibit included portraits of prominent African American men; a small statue of Frederick Douglass; 363 photographs organized into three albums titled Types of American Negroes, Georgia, USA; four volumes containing the patents issued to four hundred African Americans; photographs, reports, and artifacts from the Hampton and Tuskegee institutes and Atlanta and Fisk universities; and a large collection of literary works by African American authors organized by Daniel P. Murray, an employee of the Library of Congress. At the entrance to the exhibit, Calloway installed the Hunster Tableaux, "a series of [nine miniature] models showing graphically the progress of the negro race from primitive conditions ... to modern conditions."
Calloway and Du Bois framed the presentation of African Americans in the context of the discourse of progress and civilization, hoping to ensure that blacks would be included in the narrative of industrialization and modernity at the Paris exposition. They employed the power of display to remake the black American image that would be seen in the Paris Exposition and beyond. The two men took their ideas to other U.S. fairs, bringing their Paris exhibit first to Buffalo, for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, and then to Charleston. Using similar display strategies, Calloway organized the Negro Building for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, and Du Bois conceived the exhibits and pageants for the National Emancipation Exposition of 1913 and the America's Making Exposition of 1921.
Black planners believed that their presence at the expositions, albeit in segregated "Negro Buildings," would make a case for true enfranchisement of African Americans. Public discussion of the "Negro problem" during the Progressive era generally understood that term to mean the educational, social, political, and economic disparities of African Americans relative to the white population in the post-slavery era. Always present, both explicitly and implicitly, this "problem" shaped whites' perceptions of African Americans and African Americans' representations of themselves. Exhibitions at world's fairs and expositions gave black elites the opportunity to show, with empirical evidence, how they had solved the "Negro problem" by self-improvement and social uplift.
At these events, black organizers sought to communicate their belief that African American were both a vital constituent of the nation and a discrete, cohesive community, an "imagined political community." Black elites understood themselves as being linked by lived experience and by a shared economic, educational, and political status. Although economically and socially diverse, members of this imagined community conceived of themselves as rooted in "a shared racial mythology and a shared sense of historical mission and destiny" based on the legacy of slavery and racial oppression. They deliberately highlighted their racial difference to create a new cultural identity, and they emphasized the shared humanity of black and white Americans.
For African American organizers and visitors, world's fairs and expositions presented opportunities to publicize their advancement as a literate people and to show that they belonged to the nation because they contributed to the common good. At a time when disfranchisement, segregation, and coercion excluded African Americans from fully participating in the nation, expositions allowed African Americans the public opportunity to reshape the meaning of citizenship and to situate blacks in the history of progress in the United States. The Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, the National Emancipation Exposition, and the America's Making Exposition enabled African Americans to make their achievements known. The first was an international exposition; the second, a black celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation; and the third, a civic fair that celebrated immigrants' contributions to the United States. In their celebration of progress and civilization, they resembled other world's fairs, but they were exceptional in their emphasis on the importance of black identity and black culture to the nation. At the expositions, Meta Warrick Fuller and the men who commissioned her work-Giles B. Jackson, Thomas J. Calloway, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson-offered a narrative of the transformation of African American life since the antebellum period. Her patrons sought to create a different image and history of themselves through these exhibitions, believing in the transformative power of culture and relying on Fuller's sculpture to contribute to it.
My study of Fuller's sculpture for the three expositions is a multivocal conversation, encompassing a range of ideas and people. In the first chapter, I present a short episodic biography of the artist, arguing that Fuller's life experience particularly suited her to making works of art for the black community. Her social standing, classical education, Protestant faith, and middle-class upbringing positioned her to be a member of the "Talented Tenth," the segment of the population that Du Bois identified as uniquely qualified to lead and "uplift the race." In this chapter, I focus on the sculpture that Fuller created between 1900 and 1940, the artist's most productive period, although she continued to create small works intermittently until her death in 1968.
I focus on Fuller's sense of her own life, as revealed in personal correspondence and interviews, and on the ways others described her in the press and in volumes on "Negro accomplishment." Contemporary critical theory has done much to problematize biography, assuming that the human subject is unknowable, decentered, and dispersed. One deeply troubling aspect of critical theory's insistence on an unknowable subject is that too often it renders men and women of color invisible in art historical texts and excludes them from the construction of art history. I place Fuller in the text as an active agent of her life story and her art making; my interpretation of her life and her works is firmly rooted in her race and gender and situated in historically and culturally specific circumstances and discourses.
In writing an episodic biography, I portray Fuller as "multitudinous individual," living a rich and complicated life. It would be unproductive to repeat all the aspects of her story as recounted by Fuller's biographers; I am interested in depicting a "pattern of possibilities." On another note, I am limiting the scope of my survey to three major works. I fully understand that readers will assume that I am placing greater value on some objects and on some moments of her life. I discuss the work she created in Paris because it is now lost to us and rarely reproduced; it indicates a major shift in her understanding of modern artistic form and its relation to the black body. Because this book is concerned with public sculpture, I highlight objects with a public function or works that Fuller hoped to see realized as public monuments.
The remaining chapters are case studies based on the three expositions: I outline the way in which Fuller materialized the black body in sculpture, how she produced meaning in her works, the place of Fuller's sculpture as central to the black exhibits, the contentious history of the events, the struggle among different African American camps to control the meaning of the exhibits, and the reception of Fuller's art and the expositions. My purpose is to show how Fuller and the black organizers sought to alter public perception of the "Negro problem," to create counterpropaganda through expositions, to inscribe black history, and to reconceive the black body. Fuller's sculptures for the three early twentieth-century expositions-the Warrick Tableaux, Emancipation, and Ethiopia Awakening-are important because they allow us to see how the artist and elite African Americans struggled to articulate black identity through art and visual culture in order to remake the understanding of race and history.