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Of the 26 paintings in A Curator Collects: Highlights from the Collection of H. Elaine Jackson, a good number of the artworks were created by black women. This kind of representation is a rarity in most galleries and museums across the country. Phil Davis, Director of Brentwood Arts Exchange, tells City Paper that black women artists in D.C. have been known to be supportive of the artists coming up behind them—and that presence is manifest throughout the gallery space.
Jackson, a longtime local collector and curator, began collecting artworks in the late 1960s after attending the Arts Students League in New York City. In the span of 40 years, her collection grew to include works by notable artists including Elizabeth Catlett. A lithograph by Catlett, titled “Left Which Way,” is an image of a woman’s head viewed from three different perspectives. The work speaks to the uncertainty of life, not just for black women but especially for them. Catlett, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 97, is one of the most revered artists of her generation.
Women artists have always played a subordinate role in the annals of art history. In 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote an article for ARTnews titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The article started a movement within the art industry to grant women the merit they deserved. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of gorilla-masked industry insiders, actively protest the still male-dominated art industry as they fight for equality and representation. For some, being labeled as a woman artist seems to do more harm than good when women are pitted against men or exhibited based solely on their gender. The diversity of works by women artists in A Curator Collects is something of a testament against Nochlin’s infamous article.
In the gallery, there isn’t any attention drawn to the artworks created by these women. The pieces are subtle and if you didn’t previously know these artists’ names, chances are you wouldn’t know their gender. These works are timeless heirlooms that speak to the context of the environments in which they were created—not the race and gender of their creators.