Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Ethiopia, 1921, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC.
Today we make it into the 20th Century – so far I’ve deliberately avoided it, to be honest, for reasons of copyright, but that is the only reason… I’m assuming nothing will happen on this occasion, though. However, despite what I suggested a couple of days ago, I have decided not to confront the angst I thought I might try and deal with – the French press once labelled today’s artist ‘the delicate sculptor of horrors’ – because I wanted to end this mini-survey (to which I will return) with something more positive.
There are various versions of this piece, entitled either Ethiopia or Ethiopia Awakens – or other variations of these terms. You will also find it given a number of different dates, the result of an error in a book from 1940, which dated it to 1914, an error that has often been repeated. A publication from 1943 even said it was created in 1889, which is remarkably unlikely, as Meta Vaux Warrick would have been 12 years old! I am sticking to the date 1921: the work was commissioned for the America’s Making Exposition which took place that year in New York.
Meta Vaux Warrick was the daughter of prominent members of the African-American community in Philadelphia – they were friends with Henry Ossawa Tanner (Picture Of The Day 81), who was to be a great support when she got to Paris in 1899. Her father was a barber and caterer, her mother a wig-maker and beautician for wealthy white women. These included the woman after whom their daughter was named, Meta (pronounced the same as ‘metre’), the daughter of Senator Richard Vaux. By the time Warrick arrived in Paris she was a graduate of the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Once in Europe, she continued her studies at the Académie Colarossi, well known as one of the first places to accept female students, and at the École des Beaux-Arts. She visited Rodin in his studio at Meudon, and he is supposed to have told her, ‘My child, you are a sculptor; you have the sense of form in your fingers’. To be honest, this is such a ‘typical’ thing for him to have said, I’m not entirely sure that it’s true, although he is known to have been very supportive. Some of her work at the time was very much in his style, as was the work of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s student – and lover: he had that sort of charisma that would knock people off their feet, it seems. Warrick was lucky enough to be exhibited by Siegfried Bing, whose gallery, the ‘House of New Art’, or Maison de L’Art Nouveau, which opened in 1895, gave the movement its name. This really put her name firmly on the Parisian map, and her work was also accepted for exhibition in the Salon of 1903, the year in which she returned to Philadelphia. Her last name – Fuller – comes from her marriage, in 1909, to one of the first black psychiatrists in the United States, Solomon Carter Fuller.
Things did not always go smoothly for her, though. Even on arrival in Paris she was denied access to the American Women’s Club, even though she had already booked a room, because she was black: it was Henry Ossawa Tanner who helped her find lodgings. Back in the States a fire in her studio in 1910 destroyed 16 years worth of work, a disaster which is just one of the reasons why her name is perhaps not as well known as it should be. As her work developed she introduced biblical themes. She was a regular church-goer, but stopped attending when she was faced with discrimination. Nevertheless – and despite its appearance – it was the bible that inspired today’s sculpture.
One of the first people she met in Paris, the author W.E.B. Du Bois, had always been one of her greatest advocates: it was he who came up with the idea for this particular work. The America’s Making Exposition was intended to celebrate the artistic and industrial creativity of the immigrant communities of the United States, and Du Bois was an executive committee member of the section entitled ‘Americans of Negro Lineage’ – Fuller’s sculpture was to feature prominently in the exhibition’s catalogue.
Although Du Bois had more or less described the sculpture he wanted, Fuller developed her own ideas, which are both subtly elegiac and profound. For both of them, however, it was the place that Ethiopia had in the African-American philosophy of the time, particularly in relationship to the church, which gave the sculpture its meaning. The inspiration came from the Book of Psalms, 68:31:
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.
This text was regularly cited within African-American churches as prophesying their eventual liberation. As Renée Ator explains in a superb article in American Art (Autumn 2003 – I was hoping to include a link, but sadly that’s not possible), ‘Ethiopia ultimately served two seemingly contradictory purposes. It filled a need for African Americans to formulate an authentic racial identity by looking to the grand achievements of Egyptian history while also supporting the romantic ideal of Christian Ethiopia as a symbol of black liberation’. Fuller herself explained in a letter to a friend,
Here was a group (Negro) who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummified past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture. Why you may ask the Egyptian motif? The answer, the most brilliant period, perhaps of Egyptian history was the period of the Negro kings.
For African American theorists, the dominance of the Egyptian kingdoms was important, and served as a historical precedent for their own cultural aspirations. Supporters of slavery looked to Egypt as part of a continuum of culture that led through Greece and Rome to modern Europe and thence to the United States, and saw the Egyptian use of slaves as the inevitable domination of one race by another, and therefore, inevitably, a precursor to their own denial of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal’. For the African American community, if the Egyptians were seen as a noble race of Black Africans then the argument that had so incensed Edward Mitchell Bannister (POTD 84), that ‘the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it’, was manifestly untrue: like the Egyptians they had a culture of their own. We have already seen the importance of Egypt at the time in Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82), who, like Ethiopia, wears the nemes – the headdress usually worn by Egyptian kings.
The version of Ethiopia I have shown you so far is made of plaster, painted to look like bronze (Fuller often couldn’t afford to have her sculptures cast), but in a maquette preparatory for the finished work, she uses colour to pick out some of the details, which can make the piece easier to read.
I think it is far easier to see that the bands of the mummified form are starting to unravel, and that the figure holds one end of the bandage against her heart. The legs are still firmly bound, rigid, incapable of movement, but the torso has become more flexible. Both hands can move – the ‘graceful gesture’ of her left hand, and the act of self-liberation embodied by her right. The head also twists at the neck, no longer fixed, staring straightforward, but now able to look around and find a new place in the world. The sense of awakening was important. The Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery may have happened in 1863, but there was still not true freedom, and certainly no equality. Fuller had been a firm supporter of the Equal Suffrage Movement, hoping to get the vote for women, until she found out that black women were not included. However, culturally, things were changing, and, as Fuller hoped, a race which had lived out centuries in mummified subservience was taking hold of its own destiny. Ethiopia effectively serves as a fanfare announcing the birth of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of art, music and literature centred in the eponymous New York neighbourhood during the 1920s. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was one of the most significant women in this movement, and one of its most important sculptors – I should really talk about it another time.