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The African American Woman Who Shaped the Future of Art

by Ms. Michael angel Johnson

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a woman of African descent too often overlooked in arts history, was a precursor to the New Negro Movement of the 1920s – also known as the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1877, her sculpture of the early 20th century boldly used folk and African themes that anticipated this new artistic direction.

The Harlem Renaissance itself emerged after a shift in the leadership of black people from Booker T. Washington to more radical leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey. These men defined the role of the “New Negro” who had migrated from the south to the north and encouraged an examination of southern folklore and African culture in relation to the urban black person’s quest for a new identity. As a result, the art emerging from this period was fresh and original.

But it was Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who embodied the concepts these men described well before the movement took root.

To understand how Meta Fuller stepped ahead of her time is a study of the values of community, family, education, vision and opportunity. Meta, who lived until 1968, was born into a family that was aware of slavery, but despite immediate memories of those chains, her family had become economically successful and socially active, planting in Meta an understanding of commitment to her community and to herself as a black woman.

Meta’s grandfather on her mother’s side, Henry Jones, was an escaped slave from Virginia. By 1845, Jones had opened his own restaurant in Philadelphia, an establishment popular with white society ladies. He also had a catering business and owned property, making him a very successful businessman at a time when most people of color were held back by slavery. Jones became involved with several anti-slavery organizations, associating with Frederic Douglass and abolitionists William Still and William Lloyd Garrison.

From a very early age, Meta accompanied her father, William H. Warrick, to the Philadelphia museum, where they had discussions about art. Meta’s older sister, Blanche, painted, and Meta watched her engage in this intriguing enterprise. She often listened to her brother William’s tales of superstition from Afro-American folklore, transporting her to mysterious and haunting experiences that ignited a curiosity about the past.

Meta was invited at the age of 12 to attend the Industrial Art School. There, she studied freehand drawing, elementary design, modeling and woodcarving. She went on to study at the Pennsylvanian Museum and School of Industrial Art from 1894-1899 (now the Philadelphia College of Art).

It was not unusual for artists of the day to travel to Europe to secure their reputations on an international level. One of Meta’s instructors suggested that she join this group, and, after some debate, Meta’s family agreed to the enterprise.

Paris became an influence in her art, but not always as anticipated. The first day of her artistic entry to Paris in 1899 let her know that she was not just another artist. When she arrived at the American Girls’ Club in Paris, where she was booked for lodging, the director curtly announced that Meta should have informed the club that she was a woman of color. The director suggested that Meta stay elsewhere because white Americans from the south were residing at the club, which would make things very awkward. Meta quickly discovered that even in an environment that was supposed to assist her in becoming a stronger artist, she was surrounded by a history that others would interpret in their own way.

These experiences led Meta to create art that was not a caricature of how others perceived black people, but the union of a complicated past -- and a future that has been nourished by that past. Her acclaimed 1914 sculpture Ethiopia Awakening, was made at a time when women of all races still had not gained the right to vote in the U.S. Meta’s concept for the piece showed a woman wearing the headdress of an Egyptian Pharaoh as a symbol of power. The figure, a mummy returning to life, honors the essence of the past and the future, creating the union that the Harlem Renaissance movement later strove to honor.

The very original artwork she created made her a true precursor to the burst of arts and literature that was to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.

Coming from a middle-class black family of the 19th century, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller is an example of a complex African-American history, which was heightened because she was female and an artist. Her experiences, accomplishments, and even obstacles, created a platform, not only for contemporary artists, but for women to use as a foundation to continue their march forward.

January 22, 2010

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Michael angel Johnson is a graduate from The Yale School of Drama and her plays have been performed in venues from New York to California. She teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and at New York University. She has written a book, “Ethiopia Awakening,” about Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Edmonia Lewis, the first woman of African American and Native American heritage to earn an international reputation as a visual artist. More info:

Also see The Art Perspective: "How the People Became Color Blind and We Came to America," by Faith Ringgold curated by Art Editor Linda Stein in the Fall 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Mujeres Take Back the Culture With Old Photos" by Graciela Sanchez in the Fall 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Carol posted: 2011-11-09 13:42:53

Very informative!

Carol posted: 2011-11-13 15:48:39

Very informative!

nr posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:03

Well obviously I didn't know any of them, but have read them some. And my impression is that women like these three view themselves as better than women, more like men in their intelligence and skills, they are above us. As for Mead's quote here: she was right. We refuse to bow to our husbands, we behaved as though we too had ownership of our bodies and had choice, without having to curry their favour to earn it. Oh there is still a branch of feminism that asks men favour, and upon receiving it, yells ~~ agency, choice, empowerment!! Mead, de Beauvoir and Lessing didn't ask. But they thought because men accepted their brilliance, grudgingly especially in the case of Mead, that meant they were above other women. They just didn't get, that they had been given it and it could be taken away too.

Andrea posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:27

In 1969, Dr. Anastasi told me, sotto voce, that “women had been treated so badly for so long that they were, indeed, now in terrible shape.” This doesn't seem like an anti-feminist statement to me. It is true. In any case, thanks Dr. Chesler for the analysis of the complexity of identity and politics of famous women in previous generations.

Zvi Lando posted: 2013-11-22 15:43:38

I can remember, as a young man, from Israel, being in The Netherlands for a few months when I picked up "The Golden Notebook". It was a long a tiring journey, but one which left me changed forever. Being brought up in the macho socialist society of The Kibbutz - I too left the Left, and began to get an inkling of that other sex we call Woman. It angered me, each year when the Nobel was given to some other, second rate writer, waiting until this century to do it. God bless Doris - you touched me in a way no other has.

Sister Hawk posted: 2013-11-22 15:44:16

How sad it is that even the aforementioned women refuse to align themselves with feminism--another depressing example of woman's inhumanity to woman! Long live Amelia Erhardt (sp?)!

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