ACTIVE IN THE 1960S AND 70S, Black women artists had to deal with politics, even if their work wasn’t overtly political. Some of the most prominent figures from the time, including Vivian Browne, Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Suzanne Jackson, Senga Nengudi, and Betye Saar, rallied with their peers, taking stands and speaking up for themselves.

The artists established platforms, organizations, and spaces for discussing and showcasing their work; protested the lack of representation of Black artists in major museums; raised issues specific to Black women artists when their white female so-called allies ignored their concerns; and when they were not given the same attention as Black male artists, created opportunities of their own.

 


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). Shown, in foreground, SUZANNE JACKSON, “Rag-to-Wobble,” 2020. | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 

Two New York galleries are staging group exhibitions dedicated to showcasing their work and shedding light on their stories. The shows present an extraordinary legacy of Black women artists based in New York and Los Angeles, who starting early in their careers, through their organizing, collaboration, leadership, and perseverance, created pathways for themselves and generations of artists to come.

“Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993” is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery in Chelsea. The exhibition brings together the work of the four late New York artists who worked out of lofts in Soho and helped build the art scene in the neighborhood. As the title of the show makes clear and the gallery notes, the artists “shared a staunch activist spirit that shaped their careers and their legacies.”

In Tribeca, Ortuzar Projects is presenting “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show.” The exhibition pays homage to a landmark show in Los Angeles that was open for five days over the Fourth of July weekend in 1970. When a corporate-backed exhibition of Black artists invited only one female artist to participate, women artists came together in quick succession to put on the Sapphire Show. Founded by artist Suzanne Jackson, Gallery 32 served as the venue.

The historic Sapphire Show was the first survey of African American women artists in Los Angeles and is also believed to be the first such showing in the United States.

The historic Sapphire Show in 1970 was the first survey of African American women artists in Los Angeles and is also believed to be the first such showing in the United States.


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 

More than 50 years later, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” features works by the six artists in the original Sapphire Show: Jackson, Gloria Bohanon (1939-2008), Betye Saar, Senga Nengudi (formerly Sue Irons), Yvonne Cole Meo (1923-2016), and Eileen Nelson (formerly Eileen Abdulrashid).

The exhibition presents 29 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures produced between 1966 and 2021. Works on view include “Wood City” (circa 1970s), a sculptural assemblage by Nelson; Jackson’s “The American Sampler Painting” (1972) and “Rag-to-Wobble (2020), a more recent sculptural mixed-media painting free of any support; Bohanan’s Love Notes, whimsical, cylindrical mixed-media works on board, from 1980; Cole Meo’s “Status Quo” (circa 1965), a mixed media painting on board depicting a series of clinched fists holding paper money, against a color-blocked background; Sengudi’s sculptural “water compositions” originally made in 1969-70, with brightly colored, heat-sealed vinyl; and “Auntie & Watermelon” (1973), a mixed-media assemblage by Saar.

Also featured, Saar’s “Rainbow Mojo” (1972), which is painted on leather, was included in the landmark touring exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

The current exhibition marks the first time the group has shown their work together since 1970. The artists were part of a community of Black artists in Los Angeles developing experimental practices, working with found materials and culturally symbolic objects, using their bodies as a medium, and creating in collaboration and through performance.

An experimental space originally intended to serve as her studio, Jackson operated Gallery 32 from 1969-70. The gallery was in the same orbit as Brockman Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center, serving as a nexus for a community of Black artists that centered art, politics, and the struggle for justice.

Jackson hosted poetry readings, musical performances, and fundraisers for the Black Panther Party and the newly formed Black Arts Council, as well as exhibitions with Saar, Emory Douglas, Timothy Washington, and David Hammons, who showed his earliest body prints. The Sapphire Show was followed by a solo exhibition of Cole Meo, before Gallery 32 closed for good.

At Ortuzar Projects, where Jackson is represented, the Los Angeles artists are largely presenting conceptual and assemblage art. At Ryan Lee, nearly all of the works by the New York artists are figurative. The selections reflect the stark regional differences in style and aesthetics among Black artists at the time.

 


Installation view of “Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y. (June 4-August 13, 2021). | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 

UNDER-RECOGNIZED IN THEIR LIFETIMES, the estates of Emma Amos (1937-2020), Camille Billops (1933-2019), and Vivian Browne (1929-1993) are represented by Ryan Lee. In May, the gallery announced its representation of the Billops estate, the last to join the roster.

The representation announcement was accompanied by news that the gallery was staging a group exhibition featuring Billops, Amos, and Browne, along with May Stevens (1924-2019). A white artist, also represented by the gallery, Stevens proudly proclaimed that all of her art was political. An early series of civil rights paintings focused on Freedom Riders. She also critiqued the Vietnam War and patriarchal society.

About 35 paintings, mixed-media works, prints, and sculpture are presented in “Friends and Agitators,” including several portraits the artists made of each other. The works on view span 1965 to 1993, the year Browne died.

Reliable participants in New York’s activist culture, the artists affiliated with groups focused on opportunities for Black artists and coalitions with feminist agendas.

Amos was invited to join Spiral, the artist collective co-founded by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. As Black leaders were preparing for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the artists come together to consider their role in the quest for civil rights. Amos was the only woman and youngest member of the group that was active from 1963-65.

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) was organized in 1969 by Black artists in response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition. The group was founded to institute change at major museums with the goal of increasing representation of Black artists in exhibitions and collections. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1972, Browne and Billops became co-directors of BECC, alongside their male counterparts—Benny Andrews, Clifford R. Johnson, and Russell Thompson.

Reliable participants in New York’s activist culture, the artists affiliated with groups focused on opportunities for Black artists and coalitions with feminist agendas.


Installation view of “Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y. (June 4-August 13, 2021). | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 

Stevens helped establish SOHO20 in 1973. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Amos and Browne showed their work at the cooperative gallery. In 1975, Billops began assembling an archive of African American arts and culture with her husband James V. Hatch. The massive collection is now housed at Emory University.

Founded in 1985, Amos and Stevens were original members of the Guerrilla Girls, the radical feminist artist troupe whose members are anonymous.

The artists were also involved with Heresies. Stevens was a co-founder of the feminist artist collective and Amos was a member, between 1982 and 1993, serving as president in the late 1980s. Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics was published by the collective. Issue #8: Third World Women (1979) featured an interview with Billops. Browne and Amos orchestrated a special issue of the publication focused on race matters in the feminist art movement. Issue #15: Racism is the Issue was published in 1982.

A few years later, all four artists presented their work in the same show for the first time. Featuring 150 works by 55 artists, the seminal group exhibition “Tradition and Conflict, Images of a Turbulent Decade 1963-1973” was curated by Mary Schmidt Campbell at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1985.

The current exhibition at Ryan Lee includes “Camille Billops” (1965) and “Viviane (Self Portrait)” (circa 1972), two paintings by Browne; Stevens’s “Benny and the Flag” (1976) a portrait of artist Benny Andrews, a co-founder of BECC; “I am Black, I am Black, I am Dangerously Black” (1973), a print by Billops; and dated 1990-91, four watercolor portraits by Amos, depicting the artist herself and her peers in the show.

Part of her series The Gift (1990-94), the body of work features 48 watercolor portraits of fellow women artists and intellectuals, close friends who visited her studio.

The experiences and practices of the women intersect in life and death. When Browne died in 1993, Amos made a painting, Stevens penned her obituary, and Billops and Hatch arranged a memorial service at SOHO20. According to the gallery, Browne’s funeral was the last time the four artists were together in the same space. CT

 

“You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” featuring works by Gloria Bohanon, Suzanne Jackson, Betye Saar, Senga Nengudi, Yvonne Cole Meo, and Eileen Nelson, is on view at Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y., from June 8–July 31, 2021

“Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y., from June 4-August 13, 2021

 

READ MORE Ryan Lee Gallery published a brief catalog to accompany “Friends and Agitators”

FIND MORE See Sapphire Show artist bios

 
The Sapphire Show | Ortuzar Projects
 


SUZANNE JACKSON, “The American Sampler,” 1972 (acrylic wash on canvas, 48 x 3/4 x 39 inches / 121.9 x 1.9 x 99.1 cm). | © Suzanne Jackson, Courtesy the artist and Ortuzar Projects

 


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


Installation view of SENGA NENGUDI, “Untitled Water Composition,” 1969–70/2021 (heat-sealed vinyl and colored water, 42 x 15 inches / 106.7 x 38.1 cm), Edition of 2/2 + 1 AP. | © Senga Nengudi, Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). Shown, SENGA NENGUDI, “Water Composition V,” 1969–70/2018 (Heat-sealed vinyl and colored water, Plinth Dimensions: 5 7/8 x 189 x 94 1/2 inches / 15 x 480 x 240 cm), Edition of 2/2 + 1 AP. | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


SUZANNE JACKSON, “Rag-to-Wobble,” 2020 (acrylic, cotton paint cloth, vintage dress hangers, 86 x 63 with 14 inches variable bulge / 218.4 x 160 with 35.6 cm). | © Suzanne Jackson, Courtesy the artist and Ortuzar Projects

 


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


BETYE SAAR, “Rainbow Mojo,” 1972 (acrylic painting on cut leather, 19 3/4 x 49 3/4 inches / 50.2 x 126.4 cm). | © Betye Saar, Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


BETYE SAAR, “A Siege of Sirens,” 1966 (lithograph on paper, 20 x 15 inches / 50.8 x 38.1 cm), Edition 16/20. | © Betye Saar, Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


Installation view of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” Ortuzar Projects, New York, N.Y. (June 8–July 31, 2021). | Courtesy Ortuzar Projects

 


The exhibition poster is the only key documentation of the 1970 “Sapphire Show” that remains. The poster was designed by exhibiting artist Eileen Nelson (formerly Eileen Abdulrashid) and misspells Betye Saar’s last name. The artist’s are shown in youthful photographs, ranging from childhood to near adulthood. | Courtesy Suzanne Jackson and Ortuzar Projects

 

Ortuzar Projects on the title of the exhibition, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show”:

    This joint (self-) presentation as a multifaceted figure coming of age under the loaded pseudonym, Sapphire, plays satirically against institutionalized exclusion and general social invisibility. The character of Sapphire Stevens appeared in the notorious post-“minstrel” radio broadcast Amos ‘n’ Andy (1928–60), which later aired on CBS television (1951–54) with Ernestine Wade in the Sapphire role. Under strong pressure from the NAACP, the show was eventually cancelled, and syndicated reruns were pulled after 1966. This key reference in the Sapphire Show hinges on the caricatured stereotype of a clever woman who debunks the harebrained shenanigans of her male peers, with an intelligence also humorously unpalatable to a mainstream (white) audience. The subtitle for the exhibition—You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby—directly appropriated the slogan for the women’s brand of cigarettes sold by Virginia Slims. Considering the background events of the women’s liberation movement since the development of the birth control pill, the relatively recent Watts Rebellion (August 1965), and the historical fact of the London-based Virginia Company’s introduction of slavery in the American colonies (1619), the tagline reads almost skeptically, as a question of retrospective advancement with which Bohanon, Jackson, Saar, Nengudi, Cole Meo, and Nelson simply—brazenly—identified.
 
Friends and Agitators | Ryan Lee Gallery
 


Installation view of “Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y. (June 4-August 13, 2021). Shown, at left, CAMILLE BILLOPS, Pair of sculptures, “Vienna III” (1981-86). | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


CAMILLE BILLOPS, “Vienna III,” 1981-86 (ceramic pair, Woman: 37 x 12 x 8 inches / 94 x 30.5 x 20.3 cm); Man: 41 x 16 x 7 inches / 104.1 x 40.6 x 17.8 cm). | © Estate of Camille Billops, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


EMMA AMOS, “Camille Billops From the Gift,” 1990 (watercolor, 26 x 19 3/4 inches / 66 x 50.2 cm). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


EMMA AMOS, “Emma Amos From the Gift,” 1990 (watercolor, 26 x 19 3/4 inches / 66 x 50.2 cm). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


Installation view of “Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y. (June 4-August 13, 2021). | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 


VIVIAN BROWNE, “St. Sebastian,” 1991 (oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches / 152.4 x 121.9 cm). | © Estate of Vivian Browne, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


EMMA AMOS, “My Mothers My Sisters,” 1992 (lithograph and collage with chin colle and African fabric borders, 4 3/8 x 30 3/16 inches / 112.71 x 76.68 cm) Edition of 30. | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


EMMA AMOS, “To Sit (With Pochoir),” 1981 (etching, aquatint, and styrene stencil, 29 1/2 x 40 inches / 74.9 x 101.6 cm). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


MAY STEVENS, “Big Daddy, George Jackson, Angela Davis,” 1972 (ink and collage, 16 1/4 x 49 3/8 inches / 41.3 x 125.4 cm). | © May Stevens Estate, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


MAY STEVENS, “Benny Andrews and the Flag,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches / 152.4 x 152.4 cm). | © May Stevens Estate, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


CAMILLE BILLOPS, “I am Black, I am Black, I am Dangerously Black (etching and aquatint, 22 x 29 1/2 inches / 55.9 x 74.9 inches), Edition of 50 | © Estate of Camille Billops, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


VIVIAN BROWNE, “Camille Billops,” 1965 (oil on canvas, 50 x 44 inches / 127 x 111.8 cm). | © Estate of Vivian Browne, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


VIVIAN BROWNE, “Vivian (Self-portrait),” circa 1972 (oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 24 inches / 76.1 x 61 cm). | © Estate of Vivian Browne, Courtesy the estate and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


Installation view of “Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne and May Stevens, 1965-1993,” Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, N.Y. (June 4-August 13, 2021). Shown, from left, EMMA AMOS, “Eva and the Babysitter” (1973) and “Josephine and the Mountain Gorillas” (1985). | Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 

FIND MORE Current solo museum exhibitions focused on the artists include “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, N.Y., and “Betye Saar: 2020 Wolfgang Hahn Prize” at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. “Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight” opens in October at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami. “Senga Nengudi: Topologies” was on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, earlier this month

 

BOOKSHELF
“Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” accompanies the artist’s current traveling retrospective. “Senga Nengudi: Topologies” documents the artist’s recent museum exhibition. “Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades” was published on the occasion of the artist’s recent retrospective at Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga. Several recently published volumes explore the work of Betye Saar, including “Betye Saar: Call and Response,” “Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer,” “Betye Saar: Black Girl’s Window,” and “Betye Saar: Still Tickin’.”

 

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