A better picture of Black women in American history

Delaware Art Museum presents There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art

4 minute read
Painting of 9 Black women in dresses around the edge of a sunflower quilt with Van Gogh beside, sunflowers all around them.
Faith Ringgold’s 1996 lithograph ‘The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles.’ (Gift of Julie L. McGee, Class of 1982, Bowdoin College Museum of Art. © 2021 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.)

Today’s media often portrays pre-20th-century women of color as primarily impoverished and enslaved, but a traveling exhibition now on view at Delaware Art Museum tells a different story. There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art positively represents Black American women from the 19th century to today.

Luckily, representation of actual members of the American Black upper class is improving, from HBO’s The Gilded Age, which portrays Josephine Wilson and Mary Church Terrell, to Netflix’s Self Made, which follows Madame C.J. Walker. Echoing that focus on Black women outside the servant class, Black Women in Art, organized by Bowdoin College Museum of Art and curated by art historian Elizabeth S. Humphrey, highlights period renderings of Black women at all levels.

Seeing myself in the art

I loved this exhibition’s focus, which mirrored my own academic study. (My still-unfinished PhD surrounded representations of Black people in the upper class in 18th-century British art and literature.) I also enjoyed seeing myself in the art. We need more historical artifacts of the Black elite circulating to stop white doubters from buying the history their ancestors created, instead of the history that existed. Am I saying slavery didn’t happen? No. But many Black people existed outside of that institution, as in pre-Central Park Seneca Village and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Black Women in Art does an excellent job using paintings, photographs, collages, textiles, and more to portray women of African descent at different levels of society from the 19th century to today.

Against a bright orange backdrop, four flower-adorned Black women of different ages & sizes strike dignified classical poses.
An image from Shakira Hunt’s Delaware Art Museum installation ‘Give Me My Flowers – Soft Petals.’ (Image courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.)

My favorite piece is Shakira Hunt’s photographic installation, Give Me My Flowers – Soft Petals (on view through September 1, 2024), in response to the historical collection. It greets visitors before they enter the main exhibition. The orange-hued wall featuring dark-skinned, flower-adorned goddesses of various ages evokes community, positivity, and intergenerational support.

Marble and photography, beads and quilts

Inside the show, I loved the regal 1869 marble bust sculpted by Edmonia Lewis. Lewis, a half-Haitian, half-Native American artist, was born in upstate New York but decamped to Europe, specifically Rome, for her professional life. Although she evaded sculpting fellow people of color to avoid getting pigeonholed, that does not decrease her talent or dedication to her background.

19th-century faded photographic image of a seated Black woman with a calm expression wearing a fine, bell-sleeved dress.
‘Portrait of a Biracial Woman’ (c. 1855-60) by an unidentified photographer; museum purchase, Gridley W. Tarbell II Fund. (Artwork in the public domain.)

Next, I loved the circa 1855-1860 ambrotype in thermoplastic casing portraying a middle or upper-class Black woman. The Victorian-era image of a sedate woman with coiffed hair, dangling earrings, a neck brooch, and an embroidered suit locates her as upwardly mobile in society. I LOVED Charles Edward Williams’s I Am Queen rendering of Alice Dunbar and Faith Ringgold’s placement of African American female historical figures such as Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune in Van Gogh’s pastoral environment with The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. Although the collection includes servant photos, it also subverts them with Joyce Scott’s gorgeously beaded figures in Birth of the Mammy.

An impassive Black woman with afro, hoop earrings & patterned dress lounges sideways on a bed exploding with patterned fabric
Detail of Mickalene Thomas's 2016 chromogenic print ‘Tell Me What You’re Thinking.’ (Image courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.)

Shout out to the pieces with local connections. Camden-born artist Mickalene Thomas’s Tell Me What You’re Thinking (2016) chromogenic print on paper offers a sassy retro vibe. Although photographed in the present while portraying the past, she emphasizes a contemporary agency of now while alluding to figures such as Diana Ross. And the patchwork brilliance of Ringgold’s Tar Beach 2 quilt was produced at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. The cheerful happiness of the subject, Cassie, flying over her Harlem home feels joyful and celebratory.

Empowering Black female subjects

I wish that Lorraine O’Grady’s quote about Black women needing “to name ourselves rather than be named” (stenciled on the exhibition wall) had more influence on the selection of the female nudes. Of the three photographers appearing here, Deana Lawson is the only Black woman. Additionally, because the photographs are arranged temporally, the titillating full-frontal nude photographs of white male artist William Witt are encountered first. Although the 2021 exhibition essay, published on Bowdoin College’s website, acknowledges those concerns, I would’ve preferred if Lawson’s images, or those from other Black female artists, kicked off that section.

I’m always hesitant about African American female nudity in public spaces, considering the overt sexualization we’ve experienced through the centuries. But I understand that celebrating Black female bodies without sexualizing them (and portraying them as just that: bodies) could potentially empower the models and disempower the stereotypes.

Worth a trip to Wilmington

Considering the show represents only one percent of the Delaware Art Museum collection, I would’ve loved to see pieces by even more artists. But if you cross the hall and enter the permanent exhibition, you’ll encounter even more renderings of people of color, including Raphaelle Peale’s portrait of Absalom Jones, Albert Moore’s The Green Butterfly (featuring a woman of color), as well as Simeon Solomon’s paintings Toilette of a Roman Lady and The Mother of Moses, each featuring at least one Egyptian or unspecified woman of color with tanned skin and textured hair.

My favorite Black Women in Art pieces come from contemporary renderings by Black female artists focusing on hope. I joined a diverse crowd there on a recent Saturday, and I urge you to see the show as well. This exhibition is empowering, educational, and affecting.

What, When, Where

There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art. $7-$18 (free for kids under 6). Through May 26, 2024, at Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington. (866) 232-3714 or


Delaware Art Museum is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Visit the accessibility page for more information.

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