Meta Warrick Fuller’s Story
“My work is of the soul, rather than the figure, and sometimes the figure must be very crude in order to carry the full strength of the spiritual meaning.”
– Meta Warrick Fuller
Meta Warrick Fuller was born to a middle-class African American family in Philadelphia on June 9, 1877. Warrick Fuller received a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts, now the University of the Arts, where she was one of just a few black students. Encouraged by her sculpture teacher, in 1899, Warrick Fuller moved to Paris, where African Americans faced fewer restrictions to attend art academies than in the U.S. Although she still faced racism abroad, her years in Paris were formative for her as a sculptor. There, she met French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who was impressed by her powerful work. She became known as the “sculptor of horrors” for her dark, expressive artistic renderings, which were often inspired by folklore and mythology.
When she returned to the U.S., Warrick Fuller was commissioned by noted scholar W.E.B. DuBois to create sculptures to represent African American history and contributions to the country. Her work was exhibited in the segregated and designated “Negro areas” of several world fairs. In 1907, Warrick Fuller became the first African American woman to receive a federal art commission, when she was asked to create a piece for the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown Virginia Settlement.
Warrick Fuller created revolutionary sculptures throughout the 1910s and 1920s that elevated the African American experience as a subject worthy of depiction in art, at a time when African Americans were typically depicted in stereotypical and demeaning ways in art and media. Her work also captured the African American experience of the time, for instance, her sculpture Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence was a tribute to the NAACP’s 1917 Silent Parade in protest of lynchings.
Despite losing 16 years of artwork in a fire, and facing opposition from her husband, Warrick Fuller continued to create influential sculptures throughout her life. Her work anticipated themes of the Harlem Renaissance, celebrating African heritage and African American cultural identity. Late in her career, in the 1960s, she wrote poetry and created sculptural tributes to the Civil Rights Movement. She died on March 18,1968, at 91. In 1998, her sculpture Emancipation was cast in bronze and installed as a public monument in Boston’s Harriet Tubman Square. Her sculpture Ethiopia is now displayed at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Featured in the Film:
Renée Ater is Associate Professor Emerita of American Art at the University of Maryland, and author of Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller. She holds a B.A. in art history from Oberlin College (1987); a M.A. in art history from the University of Maryland (1993); and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland (2000). Her research and writing have largely focused on the intersection of race, monument building, and national identity. Renée is currently researching, designing, and writing a digital project entitled Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past: Race, Memorialization, Public Space, and Civic Engagement.
Alison Saar is a Los Angeles, California-based sculptor, mixed-media, and installation artist. Her artwork focuses on the African diaspora and black female identity and is influenced by African, Caribbean, and Latin American folk art and spirituality. She has had solo exhibitions at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, the Brooklyn Museum, High Museum in Atlanta, OMI International Arts Center in Ghent, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Springfield Art Museum, UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, and Santa Monica Museum of Art. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the New Museum in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among many other institutions. Saar has been awarded many distinguished grants, honors, and residencies including awards from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.