African Headdress

Hale Woodruff. African Headdress. c. 1931 1946, printed 1996. From the portfolio “Selections from the Atlanta Period, 1931 1946”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Auldlyn Higgins Williams and Ivan B. Higgins, Jr., M.D., in Memory of their Parents, Dr. I. Bradshaw Higgins and Hilda Moseley Higgins, BMA 1997.302. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art. © Estate of Hale Woodruff/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Hale Woodruff created this image in 1935, titling it “Young Girl.” He made ten copies, one of which the Harmon Foundation sent to Baltimore in 1939 for the exhibition Contemporary Negro Art. At the time, “Young Girl” was a new kind of image for Woodruff. He was principally known for his landscapes, a subject popular among black artists employed by the Federal Works Progress Administration.1

The print shows a woman with tight curls adorning her head and with jewels around her neck. Behind her, an equally ornate medley of leaves and stones appears. Her elongated face, nose, and hands evoke Baolé masks from Africa’s Ivory Coast.2 Strongly encouraged by friend and art critic Alain Locke, Woodruff started collecting African objects and developing a visual vocabulary inspired by it during his time in France. There he also encountered paintings by George Braque and Pablo Picasso that similarly found inspiration in African masks.3

The Harmon Foundation gave “Young Girl” to the Library of Congress in 1971, part of a larger effort to distribute its art collections as it disbanded. Twenty years later, in the 1990s, another “Young Girl” passed through the BMA’s doors as part of the traveling exhibition Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930’s–1940s by African-American Artists. The show was the first to celebrate the many black artists who had helped drive the development of a new and vital tradition of American printmaking in the interwar period.4 All the prints in the exhibition came from Reba and Dave Williams, who at the time owned the single most extensive private collection of prints by American artists. They had spent two years acquiring the works shown in Alone in a Crowd, after they and curatorial contacts realized how important black artists had been to the development of American printmaking and how under-represented they were in print collections.

Around the same time, Robert Blackburn reprinted “Young Girl” from its original plate as part of a campaign to draw attention to Hale Woodruff as an artist. After Woodruff died, his widow had sold the artist’s estate and works to Woodruff’s old friend, collector and arts council member E. Thomas Williams. Williams vowed to fulfill Woodruff’s wish to have his works spread far and wide and worked with Blackburn to have eight of his 1930s and 40s linocuts reprinted.5  They gave “Young Girl” the new name “African Headdress, associating it in this way with Hale Woodruff’s interest in African art and with the abstraction that started to characterize Woodruff’s art especially since the 1950s.6 Blackburn and Williams circulated “African Headdress” as part of a portfolio of Woodruff prints titled The Atlanta Years. Blackburn produced 300 copies of this portfolio between 1996 and 1999. It quickly entered the collections of many of the United States’ best known public art museums.

In 1997, ET Williams and his wife Audlyn Higgins Williams (raised in Baltimore) donated one of these portfolios to the Baltimore Museum of Art. “African Headdress” served as the portfolio’s cover image. After nearly six decades, “African Headdress” found a permanent place at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

References

[1] Amalia K. Amaki, “Hale Woodruff in Atlanta: Art, Academics, Activism, and Africa” in Hale Woodruff, Nancy Prophet, and the Academy (Atlanta: Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 2007)

[2] Met Museum, listing for African Headdress, 1999.529.204, https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/491531; Alain Locke marks the “delicate” Baolé style for its “restrained, sophisticated designs and carefully finished surfaces,” (208, The Negro in Art, 1940)

[3] Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 117.

[4] Alone In a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s-40s by African-American Artists (From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams) (Washburn Press, 1993); Dave and Reba Williams, Small Victories : One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints (Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2015).

[5] Batiste, Glenna. “The Art of Hale Woodruff Is Donated to Schomburg Library.” New York Amsterdam News, vol. 87, no. 52, 28 Dec. 1996, p. 25.

[6] Corinne Jennings, “Hale Woodruff: African- American Metaphor, Myth, and Allegory,” in A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans, edited by William E. Taylor and Harriet G. Warkel, 77-98. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).

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